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This book reopens the question of Rousseau’s influence on the

French Revolution and on English Romanticism, by examining the


relationship between his confessional writings and his political
theory. Gregory Dart argues that by looking at the way in which
Rousseau’s writings were mediated by the speeches and actions of
the French Jacobin statesman Maximilien Robespierre, we can gain
a clearer and more concrete sense of the legacy he left to English
writers. He shows how the writings of William Godwin, Mary
Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth and William Hazlitt rehearse
and reflect upon the Jacobin tradition in the aftermath of the
French revolutionary Terror.

Gregory Dart is lecturer in English at the University of York. He


studied at Cambridge and has published in Victorian Literature &
Culture, The Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies and the bulletin of the
British Association of Romantic Studies.
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                 

RO US S E AU, RO BE SPIE RRE AND E NG LISH


RO MANTIC ISM
               

General editors
Professor Marilyn Butler Professor James Chandler
University of Oxford University of Chicago

Editorial board
John Barrell, University of York
Paul Hamilton, University of London
Mary Jacobus, Cornell University
Kenneth Johnston, Indiana University
Alan Liu, University of California, Santa Barbara
Jerome McGann, University of Virginia
David Simpson, University of California, Davis

This series aims to foster the best new work in one of the most challenging fields
within English literary studies. From the early s to the early s a formi-
dable array of talented men and women took to literary composition, not just
in poetry, which some of them famously transformed, but in many modes of
writing. The expansion of publishing created new opportunities for writers, and
the political stakes of what they wrote were raised again by what Wordsworth
called those ‘great national events’ that were ‘almost daily taking place’: the
French Revolution, the Napoleonic and American wars, urbanization, indus-
trialization, religious revival, an expanded empire abroad and the reform move-
ment at home. This was an enormous ambition, even when it pretended
otherwise. The relations between science, philosophy, religion and literature
were reworked in texts such as Frankenstein and Biographia Literaria; gender rela-
tions in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Don Juan; journalism by Cobbett
and Hazlitt; poetic form, content and style by the Lake School and the Cockney
School. Outside Shakespeare studies, probably no body of writing has pro-
duced such a wealth of response or done so much to shape the responses of
modern criticism. This indeed is the period that saw the emergence of those
notions of ‘literature’ and of literary history, especially national literary history,
on which modern scholarship in English has been founded.
The categories produced by Romanticism have also been challenged by recent
historicist arguments. The task of the series is to engage both with a challeng-
ing corpus of Romantic writings and with the changing field of criticism they
have helped to shape. As with other literary series published by Cambridge, this
one will represent the work of both younger and more established scholars, on
either side of the Atlantic and elsewhere.
For a complete list of titles published see end of book
Rousseau, Robespierre and English
Romanticism

GREGORY DART
PUBLISHED BY CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS (VIRTUAL PUBLISHING)
FOR AND ON BEHALF OF THE PRESS SYNDICATE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE
The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 IRP
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, USA
477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, VIC 3207, Australia

http://www.cambridge.org

© Gregory Dart 1999


This edition © Gregory Dart 2003

First published in printed format 1999

A catalogue record for the original printed book is available


from the British Library and from the Library of Congress
Original ISBN 0 521 64100 4 hardback

ISBN 0 511 00760 4 virtual (netLibrary Edition)


‘To my father & mother Edward and Jean,
and my two sisters Leah and Katie.’
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Contents

List of illustrations page x


Acknowledgements xi

Introduction 
 Despotism of liberty: Robespierre and the illusion of
politics 
 The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
 Chivalry, justice and the law in William Godwin’s Caleb
Williams 
 ‘The Prometheus of Sentiment’: Rousseau, Wollstonecraft
and aesthetic education 
 Strangling the infant Hercules: Malthus and the population
controversy 
 ‘The virtue of one paramount mind’: Wordsworth and the
politics of the Mountain 
 ‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to
reform 

Notes 
Bibliography 
Index 

ix
Illustrations

. Sketch of Robespierre (), by Gérard, musée


Carnavelet, Paris. No.  CAR  A. page 
. ‘Festival of the Supreme Being on the Champ de Mars’ (),
watercolour by Naudet, musée Carnavelet, Paris. No. 
CAR  A. 
. ‘View of the Chariot which was used at the Festival of the
Supreme Being on the  Prairial, year two’ (),
anonymous engraving, musée Carnavalet, Paris No.  CAR
 A. 
. ‘The Sanculotte rendering homage to the Supreme Being’
(), engraving by Aveline, musée Carnavelet, Paris. No. 
CAR  NB. 
. ‘The Triumph of the Republic’ (), Pierre Michael Alix,
musée Carnavelet, Paris. No.  CAR  A. 

x
Acknowledgements

Many people have suffered in the making of this project; countless inno-
cent victims have been caught up in its violent and erratic progress. Here
is a list of the ones who made the most heroic efforts to keep it on course.
My greatest debt of gratitude is to my former supervisor Nigel Leask, a
truly remarkable man, who has been an unfailing source of knowledge
and inspiration to me over the past decade. And not far behind him
come John Whale, John Barrell, Hugh Haughton, Jack Donovan,
Harriet Guest, Ludmilla Jordanova, Stephen Copley, Howard Erskine-
Hill, Alan Forrest and Norman Hampson, who have all offered con-
structive criticism of my work at one time or another, not to mention
James Chandler and the anonymous readers at Cambridge University
Press, whose late suggestions for revision were a great help. In addition,
I should like to thank my undergraduate director of studies Fred Parker,
for so skilfully fanning the first flames of my revolutionary enthusiasm,
and also Louise Hoole, Juliet Osborne and Mark Hallett, for having
been prepared to live with the fumes. Finally, I must express my grati-
tude to Josie Dixon at Cambridge University Press, for her considerable
kindness and understanding during the preparation of the typescript.

xi
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Introduction

Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm,


my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost
intolerable.1


Surprisingly, perhaps, given the mythic status he now enjoys as the
archetype of the modern scientist, the protagonist of Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus () has an approach to science that
is decidedly anti-modern. In the early part of his confessional narrative
Victor describes how his project to re-animate the dead was initially
inspired by the study of writers such as Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus
and Albertus Magnus, a group of mystics and alchemists considered by
his tutor the ‘progressive’ Professor Krempe to be ‘as musty as they are
ancient’. For Frankenstein, however, they display a holism that is notice-
ably lacking in the disciples of modern natural philosophy:
It was very different, when the masters of the science sought immortality and
power; such views, although futile, were grand: but now the scene was changed.
The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those
visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to
exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth. ()
Even after having been persuaded of the value of modern experi-
mental techniques by the sympathetic Mr Waldman, Victor does not
abandon his pursuit of the ancient ideal. Instead he chooses to put the
former in the service of the latter, employing the latest analytical
methods for his own overwhelmingly animistic ends, attempting to dis-
cover the vital unity that binds together the world of matter by syn-
thesising a living human being from a collection of dead and disparate
body parts. When seen in this light, Frankenstein’s ‘almost supernatural
enthusiasm’ – the quasi religious fervour with which he approaches his

 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
research – can only serve to reinforce the impression that he is an intel-
lectual ‘primitivist’ rather than a ‘progressive’.
Since its first appearance in , Mary Shelley’s famous tale of over-
reaching idealism has often been read as a political allegory of the
French Revolution. In this interpretation of things, Victor Frankenstein
is seen as a revolutionary idealist whose attempt to create ‘a new man’
reproduces the utopian impulse of , and whose subsequent dis-
appointment mirrors its historical failure. Not only the broad contour of
the narrative, but also many of its incidental details serve to encourage
this line of reasoning. Frankenstein is born in Geneva like that other
‘modern Prometheus’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a figure widely recog-
nised in the early nineteenth century as one of the intellectual fathers of
French republicanism.2 And he gives life to his creature at Ingolstadt in
Bavaria, which became notorious in the counter-revolutionary histori-
ography of the period as the birthplace of the secret society of the
Illuminati, the alleged founders of revolutionary Jacobinism.3 Despite
this, however, while demonstrating a full awareness of the symbolic
geography of the novel, most ‘political’ readings of Frankenstein have
not made much of its European setting, preferring to regard the novel
in rather narrowly English terms, either as a specific attack on the
utopian idealism of Shelley’s father William Godwin, or more generally
as ‘a critique of the revolutionary optimism of the s’.4
This is unfortunate, especially as there is a good deal of evidence to
suggest that recent European history is likely to have been very much in
Mary Shelley’s mind when she came to write Frankenstein. Significantly,
the letters and diaries of the Shelley circle for the Swiss summer of 
indicate that both Mary and Percy were eagerly devouring the novels
and memoirs of Rousseau around this time, while the latter was dipping
liberally into Lacretelle’s Précis Historique de la Révolution Française.5 So
much so, indeed, that it is tempting to think that, with the fall of
Napoleon the previous year, and the bringing to a close of more than
twenty years of European conflict, both Mary and Percy had been
moved to undertake a reassessment of the long history of the French
Revolution, and of the specific influence of Rousseau upon it.6 And all
the signs are that, for Percy at least, this reappraisal led to a fundamental
revision in his attitude to the ‘citizen of Geneva’. Where previously he
had considered Rousseau to be in the mainstream of French rationalist
thought, from this time onwards he began to make a distinction between
Rousseau and the more sceptical tradition of the Enlightenment, con-
trasting the ‘cold and unimpassioned spirit of Gibbon’, with ‘the greater
Introduction 
and more sacred name of Rousseau’, increasingly coming to regard the
latter as ‘the greatest man the world [had] produced since Milton’, and
his celebrated novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloïse, which he was then re-
reading, as ‘an overflowing . . . of sublime genius, and more than human
sensibility’.7
Evidently, what excited Shelley most about Rousseau’s writing was his
famously impassioned style, which in the minds of many readers of Julie
was a fully Promethean force, transcending the bounds of eighteenth-
century sentimental narrative, breaking down the conventional barriers
existing between writer and reader, to function as an overpoweringly
direct and unmediated conduit of libertarian sentiment. It was this ‘en-
thousiasme’ which Germaine de Staël had offered as a model for the
people of France in her Lettres sur les écrits et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau of
, published amid the first stirrings of the revolutionary ferment, and
it was this selfsame quality that she was still recommending just over ten
years later, in her epoch-making treatise De la littérature (), this time
as a healthy alternative to the destructive fanaticism which had swept the
First Republic during the Terror. In her eyes the fact that the Jacobins
had adopted Rousseau as their patron saint did not justify the wide-
spread neglect his writings had fallen into on both sides of the channel
after the fall of Robespierre. There was much in Jean-Jacques that was
of enduring value, and clearly distinct from the cold, calculating spirit of
the Terror.8 A highly sympathetic reader of de Staël, who was deeply
indebted to her post-revolutionary cultural theory, Shelley himself seems
to have concurred with this view, for in the years after , he repeat-
edly strove to redeem Rousseau from the tarnishing influence of the
French Revolution, increasingly interested in the artistic potential of
‘enthusiasm’ as an instrument of philosophical and political education.
In this context, it is clearly relevant to our reading of Frankenstein as an
allegory of the French Revolution that the central revolutionary hero of
Mary Shelley’s novel, for all his deft employment of the sophisticated
techniques of modern science, is fundamentally a Rousseauvian ‘enthu-
siast’ rather than a sceptical philosophe. Most recent accounts of the intel-
lectual character of the French Revolution have tended to reproduce the
English counter-revolutionary polemic of the period, which represented
it purely in terms of a commitment to the systematic materialism of the
French Enlightenment.9 But Mary Shelley’s rather more nuanced alle-
gory exposes the inadequacy of this over-simplified model, inviting us to
reassess the complex history of revolutionary Jacobinism. It recalls the
fact that its leading mentor had been as profoundly opposed to the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
iniquitous tendencies of modern commerce–capitalism and its cos-
mopolitan project of ‘enlightenment’ as he had been critical of the old
and corrupt aristocratic order of eighteenth-century France. For as we
shall see, Rousseau’s highly democratic inflection of neo-Spartan civic
humanism was simultaneously both revolutionary and anti-progressive,
so that for all the rather abstract nature of his political theory, he was in
many ways as much of a defender of custom and tradition as the English
conservative Edmund Burke. His intellectual legacy to the French
Revolution was thus profoundly at odds with that supplied by the central
philosophical tradition of the French Enlightenment, which was far
more enthusiastically ‘modern’ in nature. And the contradictions inher-
ent in this joint heritage were to contribute greatly to the deep ambiva-
lence of revolutionary republicanism, for as Allan Bloom has recently
remarked, ‘there were many opponents of Enlightenment and its politi-
cal project – in the name of tradition or the ancestral, in the name of
the kings and the nobles, even in the name of the ancient city and its
virtue. But Rousseau was the first to make a schism within the party of
what we may call the left’.10
Few critics of Frankenstein have been willing to acknowledge or discuss
the different ideological formations that went into the construction of
revolutionary politics. Here as in Romantic studies as a whole, the
Revolution has too often been seen in remarkably monolithic terms, as
a systematic and progressive experiment in government that eventually
resulted in bloodshed and terror. It is the central argument of this intro-
duction, and indeed of the book as a whole, that this unacceptably sim-
plistic interpretation – a deliberate fabrication by the great architects of
the English counter-revolution, Burke and Coleridge – has seriously
hampered our understanding of the literature of the period. It is my
contention that one cannot hope to fathom the truly paradoxical nature
of some of the central texts of English Romanticism without reference
to the tensions and contradictions of French republicanism, a movement
that contained both systematically ‘progressive’ and radically ‘primi-
tivist’ elements.
In chapter one of Frankenstein Shelley describes how Waldman suc-
ceeds in removing Frankenstein’s prejudice against modern science by
showing him the kinds of things that the new chemists have accom-
plished: ‘these philosophers’, he affirms, ‘whose hands seem only made
to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible,
have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of
nature, and shew how she works in her hiding-places’ (–). Admiring
Introduction 
Frankenstein’s holistic zeal, Waldman suggests that it might be possible
for him to make use of the latest innovations in science without degener-
ating into what he calls a ‘petty experimentalist’ (). As in the French
Revolution itself, so too in Mary Shelley’s novel, the visionary project to
create ‘a new man’ is the product of a collaboration between the primi-
tive aspiration towards unity and simplicity and the analytic method
pioneered by the Western Enlightenment. In this way Frankenstein
describes a dangerous ‘chemical reaction’ between the ancient and the
modern. Extending the revolutionary analogy, Frankenstein’s construc-
tion of the creature can be seen as a metaphor for the politicisation of
the Parisian sans-culottes by the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Both processes
can be seen as the bringing-into-being of a new kind of subjectivity, the
bestowal of legitimacy and agency upon a new class of people. In each
case, however, the creator abandons his creation: historically, the prop-
erty restrictions to citizenship contained in the French Constitution of
 constituted a covert denial of the political demands of the urban
working-class by the liberal bourgeois Assembly, and thus a clear
betrayal of the latter’s former commitment to the principles of liberty,
equality and fraternity.11 And this historical betrayal was to find its liter-
ary counterpart in Mary Shelley’s novel, where Frankenstein responds
to the burgeoning subjectivity of the creature by fleeing from his pres-
ence.12 In this way Frankenstein offers a telling vision of the displaced
social tension at the heart of Romantic Manichaeanism, for when the
creature comes in search of his creator in the latter half of the book, and
commits a series of horrific crimes in order to gain his recognition,
Victor’s response is simply to turn him into a monstrous counter-version
of himself, which is just another way of denying him subjectivity: ‘I con-
sidered the being whom I had cast among mankind [. . .] nearly in the
light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and
forced to destroy all that was dear to me’ (). Moreover, it could be
argued that it is precisely this capacity for egotistical projection that
identifies Victor Frankenstein as a belated adherent of revolutionary
Jacobinism, since (as we shall see in the next chapter) it so neatly mimics
Robespierre’s historical displacement of revolutionary class tension
between the sans-culottes and the political bourgeoisie onto the metaphys-
ical monster of ‘counter-revolution’.
As is well known, of course, in the second volume of Frankenstein this
strategy of revolutionary displacement and denial is subjected to a pow-
erful critique, as Mary Shelley breaks with all the literary traditions
regarding the representation of revolutionary monstrosity by giving her
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
creature a voice.13 Having tracked Frankenstein down, and forced him
to sit and listen to his life history, the monster begins to recount his soli-
tary wanderings through the hinterlands of Germany. He recalls seeking
shelter near to the cottage of the De Laceys, and of listening to the
conversation of the various members of the family. Gradually, he begins
to learn French (significantly, the very language of revolution, in the
context of this period), and before long has taught himself to read, by
poring over certain books that fall fortuitiously into his hands. And cru-
cially, the little library that he develops offers a kind of introduction to
the history of European republicanism: Plutarch’s Lives, Milton’s Paradise
Lost, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and Volney’s Ruins of Empires. This
means that when the creature finally launches a critique of his creator’s
revolutionary practice it is itself revolutionary – and republican – in
origin. As he suggests to Frankenstein, it was not his creator’s principles
that were at fault, but his failure to see them in private as well as public
terms: ‘Believe me, Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with
love and humanity: but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my
creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures,
who owe me nothing? they spurn and hate me’. But this does not prevent
the creature from finally offering Frankenstein up to Walton and the
reader at the end of the book as a kind of hero, a ‘glorious spirit’ ()
whose unfortunate failure was at least partly the fault of his recalcitrant
and vengeful offspring. And Victor’s last words do nothing to dispel the
feeling of ambivalence that haunts the final pages of the novel, for in a
dangerous supplement to his final confession he briefly suggests that
some future enthusiast might actually be able to succeed where he has
failed: ‘Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition’, he tells
Walton, ‘even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing
yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself
been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed’ ().
Most critics have sought to align Mary Shelley with the former part
of this statement rather than with the latter. Despite Percy Shelley’s
comment, in the Preface to the first edition, that the novel was not
intended to ‘prejudice any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind’,
there has been a strong temptation to read it as a repudiation of the
radical politics of the revolutionary decade. In an essay from the late
s that still has considerable critical currency, Lee Sterrenburg was to
read Frankenstein in terms of a retreat not merely from Jacobin princi-
ples, but from the discourse of politics as a whole, an appropriation of
sites of historical importance – such as Geneva and Ingolstadt – into a
Introduction 
narrative of purely private significance. Developing his thesis,
Sterrenburg interpreted the confessional structure of the novel as an
internalisation of the political debate on the nature and influence of the
French Revolution, an attempt to ‘translate politics into psychology’.
According to this view of things, Mary Shelley’s aim was to domesticate
the revolutionary narrative, to transform it from a debate on the nature
of public man into a vindication of the private affections, and, in so
doing, to register an implicit critique of the radical principles of her
parents, and even perhaps of those of her husband. Sterrenburg’s
interpretation offers Frankenstein’s radical internalisation of revolution-
ary history as a form of Romantic denial, an overdetermined negation
of the legacy of French Jacobinism that is fundamentally conservative
in nature.14 In many ways, this reading forms part of an extensive criti-
cal tradition of the last twenty years which has been tempted to see
many of the central texts of Romantic literature as just so many dis-
placements and denials of history.15 According to this view of things the
strategy of displacement was a means by which writers living in a dis-
turbing age could seek to transcend the problems of social and histori-
cal reality and then subsequently re-occupy them at the level of
consciousness. ‘In the case of Romantic poems’, as Jerome J. McGann
argues, ‘we shall find that the works tend to develop different sorts of
artistic means with which to occlude and disguise their own involvement
in a certain nexus of historical relations’.16 In this introduction, and in
this book as a whole, I would like to challenge the assumption, which is
common to much contemporary criticism, that Romantic displacement
tends to be either explicitly reactionary in nature or else a conservative
retreat from the realm of politics, for in the case of a novel such as
Frankenstein an examination of the revolutionary subtext forces us to
rethink the political meaning of the text.
In his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du Jacobinisme of  the French
émigré priest Antoine-Joseph Barruel gave an hysterically vivid account
of an occult conspiracy against the institutions of royalty, religion and
the law which was spreading its baleful influence all over Europe. This
movement, which Barruel called Jacobinism, was seen to have origi-
nated in the secret sect of the Illuminati founded by Professor Adam
Weishaupt in Ingolstadt in , a society substantially composed of
philosophers and freethinkers holding fiercely deistic and republican
beliefs. And from these small beginnings it was deemed to have quickly
and smoothly expanded its underground influence, spreading its
network into England and France as well as Germany, until it emerged
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
from the shadows during the crisis of , to terrifying and destructive
effect. For reasons that must have been to a large extent playful and
ironic, Barruel’s Mémoires was one of Percy Shelley’s favourite books.
Throughout his adult life, he was continually returning to it; he even
made a point of reading Mary the section relating to the history of the
Illuminati during the period of their courtship in .17 Now, when seen
in the light of the Shelleys’ continued interest in a text such as the
Mémoires, the comparative absence of politics from the discursive surface
of Frankenstein might be seen to take on a different character. For it is
likely that what they enjoyed most about Barruel was his representation
of revolutionary ‘enthusiasm’ as a kind of parasitic influence, dissemi-
nating itself through a series of mysterious relays and transactions, a
libertarian spirit that went beyond the traditional bounds of politics,
operating as a kind of radical contagion. In Frankenstein both the crea-
ture and his creator possess the kind of passionate enthusiasm that
affords them extraordinary powers of eloquence. Perhaps the most
notable example of this is when Victor exhorts Walton’s crew not to give
up their heroic quest for the North Pole, where he assumes the role of a
revolutionary statesman, a Danton or a Brissot: ‘Did you not call this a
glorious expedition? and wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way
was smooth and placid as a southern sea but because it was full of
dangers and terror; because, at every new incident your fortitude was to
be called forth and your courage exhibited; because danger and death
surrounded, and these dangers you were to brave and overcome’ ().
Ultimately, of course, it must be admitted that Mary Shelley’s novel does
adopt an actively critical stance to the idealism of its central character.
But while it may be true to say that the novel is finally very ambivalent
about revolutionary enthusiasm, it is less certain that the work as a whole
represents a denial of revolutionary politics, precisely because the
repression of the political is so clearly part of its subject. For not merely
does the early mention of Geneva and Ingolstadt suggest that Victor’s
story may have some degree of allegorical potential, it also highlights its
curious, rather paradoxical status as a narrative that is at once pre- and
post-revolutionary in nature, occupying the kind of political vacuum
that was the shared experience of both Illuminists and post-revolution-
aries alike. And this, in turn, may help to explain the finally rather indul-
gent attitude the novel adopts towards Frankenstein, its tendency to see
his fundamentally secretive and solitary nature as the product of his
adverse historical circumstances.
Rousseau’s overdetermined absence from Frankenstein is significant
Introduction 
and important in this respect, not however because Mary Shelley was
seeking to deny the political history of the revolution, but because she
was seeking to recapture some of the revolutionary potential of his writ-
ings without having to undertake an explicit critique of their historical
influence, preferring to let the allegorical narrative suggest one. And this
is where the novel’s emphasis upon first-person narrative is especially
important, for as I hope to show, it can clearly be seen to draw upon a
revolutionary tradition of confessional writing that had its roots in
Rousseau.
In much of the best recent critical writing Romantic autobiography
has often been seen in terms of a self-conscious desire to escape from
politics and history.18 But in the autobiographical writings of Rousseau
– his Rêveries du promeneur solitaire and his Confessions – the cultivation of the
language of isolation and self-martyrdom, the removal of the self from
the hazards of historical circumstance possessed an explicitly political
resonance. It was a form of polemical engagement masquerading as
resignation and denial. By laying his soul bare in the Confessions, and
openly exploring his former errors, Rousseau had effectively purified
himself in print, using autobiography as a means of discovering that
pure, primitive part of himself which remained resistant to the corrupt-
ing influences of modern life. Implicitly, he represented the autobio-
graphical subject as an anticipation, in individual form, of the
transparency and virtue which would be the defining feature of the ideal
political community of the future, inviting his readers to break down the
aristocratic obstacle to liberty and equality and enter the realm of trans-
parency by engaging in a sympathetic reading of his work. And in works
such as the Dialogues and the Rêveries he contined to develop a powerful
confessional rhetoric in which the unmediated expression of personality
became a powerful force for political change. Indeed as the profoundly
unsympathetic counter-revolutionary polemicist Hannah More was
forced to acknowledge, ‘there never was a net of such exquisite art and
inextricable workmanship, spread to entangle innocence and ensnare
experience as the writings of Rousseau’.19 And when seen in this light,
the autobiographical ‘enthusiasm’ of the Confessions can be seen as the
perfect complement to the more obviously legislative mode of the same
author’s Du Contrat Social, simply an alternative means of pursuing the
same republican ideal. In this way the ‘citizen of Geneva’ bequeathed a
twofold legacy to the revolutionary generation: he offered a radically
egalitarian version of the ancient political discourse of civic humanism,
but he also developed a highly wrought rhetoric of confession that
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
enlisted ‘modern’ sensibility for the republican cause. The question is,
however, whether a detailed examination of this element of Rousseau’s
thought can modify our view of the intellectual and political roots of
English Romanticism. During the next seven chapters I hope to show
that a close analysis of the Rousseauvian influence upon revolutionary
Jacobinism can shed new light on the confessional writings of William
Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth and William
Hazlitt, encouraging us to see them as works of transferred idealism
rather than resignation and denial. For as I shall suggest, even in the
aftermath of the failure of the Revolution, Rousseauvian confession con-
tinued to offer a radical consolation for the disappointments of practical
politics, a version of the primitivist ideal that was at once deeply private
and yet full of public resonance.
The framing of the central story of Frankenstein by the narrative of
Robert Walton significantly affects our attitude to its central protagonist.
Overpowered by Frankenstein’s passionate openness towards him, and
by the bewitching eloquence of his speech, Walton comes to regard him
as a kind of persecuted philanthropist: ‘if any one performs an act of
kindness towards him’, Walton tells his sister ‘or does him any the most
trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a
beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled. But he is
generally melancholy and despairing; and sometimes he gnashes his
teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him’ (). The
explorer’s praise of the scientist is no less fulsome even after he has heard
the full horrors of his story. Writing shortly after the latter’s demise he
admits not knowing what comment to make ‘on the untimely extinction
of this glorious spirit’ (). And nor is he the sole victim of this idolatry.
At the end of the novel even the monster is finally driven to praise
Frankenstein as ‘the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and
admiration among men’ (). This suggests that, contrary to the empha-
sis of most modern critical writing, the author’s own attitude to
Frankenstein was deeply divided. Undeniably, Mary Shelley offers a
strenuous critique of Frankenstein’s anti-social pursuit of self-fulfilment.
Clearly we are to see his personal tragedy as a consequence of his neglect
of the domestic affections; he himself suggests as much just before
describing the birth of the monster (). But the emphasis supplied by
Walton and the creature does give credence to the implication of
Frankenstein’s last speech that his ideal was not unworthy, and that his
mistake had been to seek it through modern methods; as if he should
have seen that the project of revolutionary regeneration would be
Introduction 
achieved not by mechanical but only by moral means. Like Rousseau in
his Confessions, Frankenstein finally succeeds in absolving himself of most
of his former sins and errors, casting off the grime of history to reveal
his fundamental virtue. Seen in this light, Shelley’s novel looks less like a
repudiation of radical politics than a record of their secret survival, with
Victor’s last words offering encouragement to a whole new generation
of Illuminati, inciting them to take up the revolutionary baton and bear
it bravely into the future.


As a number of historians and literary critics have shown, English
middle-class radicalism during the revolutionary decade was often very
closely bound up with the tradition of radical dissent, a body of thought
that was largely mechanistic, necessitarian and progressive in nature. It
was a tradition that produced philosophers and polemicists such as
Joseph Priestley, Tom Paine, Thomas Robert Malthus and Richard
Price, but it also had a formative influence upon many of the major
creative writers of the period, figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
William Godwin, William Wordsworth and William Blake. While in no
way seeking to deny the historical importance of this body of thought,
or its links with the ‘progressive’ current of the French Revolution, in this
study I shall be seeking to identify an alternative tradition, a body of
ideas distinct from both philosophical and popular radicalism, a form of
radical politics developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and mediated by
Maximilien Robespierre, which was largely anti-scientific and anti-
progressive in nature, and whose significant impact upon English
Romantic writing has long been underestimated. In his recent book
Radical Sensibility Chris Jones identified an English tradition of ‘radical
sensibility’ that argued for ‘the autonomy of the individual, the priority
of universal benevolence, and the capacity of men to act on an
apprehension of social justice’. This current of thought, he argues, was
clearly distinct from the line of philosophical dissent, ‘largely disowning
the appeal to commerce and materialistic interests which were a feature
of Painite and dissenting propaganda’.20 He indicates the importance of
Rousseau to this tradition, but without exploring it in any detail, pre-
ferring to see its origins in the home-grown ‘benevolism’ of Shaftesbury
and Hutcheson: ‘Most of the writers of radical sensibility were
influenced by Rousseau’, he declares, ‘especially by his criticism of the
artificialities and inequalities of high society. Yet most rejected his flight
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
from society and progress’ (). In many ways Jones has contributed
greatly to our understanding of middle-class radicalism in the revolu-
tionary decade, but to my mind one cannot examine radical inflections
of the discourse of sensibility in the revolutionary decade without refer-
ring in more detail to the work of Rousseau, for almost single-handedly
he helped both French and English Jacobins transform a rather diffuse
concept of social sympathy into an attachment to ‘the people’ which was
at once highly sentimental and yet also highly democratic.
The language of ‘sensibility’ was so ubiquitous in the period that, as
Jones himself suggests, its ideological polarity is impossible to pin down:
‘Sensibility was clearly not a uniform or unitary concept when it could
be both championed and attacked from so many points of view, and I
think modern scholarship has erred in trying to impose such a unitary
interpretation upon it’ (). Evidently, what we are dealing with in the late
eighteenth century is a culture of sensibility, a milieu in which the vocab-
ulary of sentiment is being put to a wide variety of political ends. In
order to narrow the focus of my discussion, therefore, I have chosen to
concentrate on the way in which Rousseau put the ‘modern’ discourse
of sensibility in the service of ‘ancient’ virtue, rechannelling Wertherian
‘enthusiasm’ into the pursuit of a Plutarchan life. This constituted a
highly distinctive inflection of the language of sentiment, and one that
was remarkably influential during the Revolutionary period. My task is
to see how far it impacted itself upon some of the most celebrated exam-
ples of Romantic writing.
In certain ways, it might seem that there is nothing more unnecessary
than another discussion of Rousseau’s ‘influence’. In the many accounts
that have appeared of the French Revolution and the Romantic move-
ment, the importance of his writings has scarcely ever been denied. The
problem is that it has become something of a platitude. Too often in
English literary studies he has been rather casually treated as the baggy
source of a whole series of contemporary ideas on culture and society,
the enthusiasm for nature, for example, or the systematic approach to
education, or the renewed interest in festivals. Perhaps this is not sur-
prising: after all, from time to time, many of the leading figures of the
late eighteenth century used him in this way too. In this study, however,
I want to try and delimit and define the ideological status of Rousseau’s
work, to re-establish his specific and local importance as a political
thinker by re-inserting him into the polemical conflicts of his time. For
in my opinion, one cannot hope to understand the nature of his
influence upon the Romantic movement without looking at the way in
Introduction 
which his ideas were mediated by the French Revolution, and more espe-
cially, by neo-Spartan Jacobinism. An analysis of the career of
Maximilien Robespierre in particular can help to give a specific focus to
Rousseau’s work, reinvesting discussions of ‘radical’ sentiment and
sensibility with historical pressure and meaning. And it may also help to
explain the paradoxical nature of Rousseau’s continuing impact upon
English letters in the aftermath of the Revolutionary decade.
As Edward Duffy has shown, Rousseau’s work enjoyed a favourable
reception in England in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Works
such as the Lettre à D’Alembert and his novel La Nouvelle Heloïse identified
him as an enthusiastic disciple of primitive republicanism and a critic of
the corruptions and sophistications of modern urban life. But after the
French Revolutionaries had adopted Rousseau as their philosophical
and political mentor – ‘their canon of holy writ’ as Edmund Burke put
it – his reputation in England suffered a dramatic decline.21 So much so,
that by the early s former radicals such as William Wordsworth, who
had once been remarkably sympathetic to Rousseau’s ideas, were now
grouping him with philosophes like Condillac and Holbach, considering
his ‘paradoxical reveries’ to be part of the excessively rational and
abstract tradition of French thought which was increasingly considered
reponsible for the Revolution’s failure.22 But precisely because there was
increasing pressure in the post-revolutionary period to repudiate France
and the French national character, the discussion (or even non-
discussion) of the work of Rousseau and Robespierre by former fellow-
travellers cannot be taken at face-value.23 Even after the Terror, the
dream of virtue and transparency by which the French republicans had
been driven was often to survive as a parasite in the work of the English
Romantics, to the extent that in his conservative middle age Coleridge
was moved to compare the enduring spirit of Jacobinism to the ghost in
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, considering that it was still ‘moving and mining in
the underground chambers with an activity the more dangerous because
less noisy’.24
In the years after  conservative pamphleteers and polemicists
increasingly sought to convince their countrymen and women that the
Revolution was a monolithic phenomenon. Most famously, Edmund
Burke argued that the French revolutionaries were attempting to trans-
form society into a machine. For him Jacobinism represented a
philosophical conspiracy against the natural, organic society that still
prevailed in England. In his representation of things, it was a product of
the misguided rationalism of the French Enlightenment. Repudiating
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
continental theory and system, he told his readers to return to their
hearths and homes, to cultivate their local and domestic attachments,
and to revere the English Constitution as a product of the ‘stupendous
wisdom’ of nature.25 Too often Burke’s view of the Revolution as a
homogenous event has been uncritically accepted by twentieth-century
literary historians. Critics have tended to accept his portrait of the
revolutionaries as ‘sophisters, economists and calculators’ even when
they have not agreed with his pejorative tone.26 But far from being a
monolithic phenomenon, middle-class Jacobinism bequeathed to
history both a liberal notion of freedom and its absolute denial. In this
respect the neo-Spartan republicanism of  represented a paradoxi-
cal and contradictory form of resistance to the constitutionalism of
, occupying an uncomfortably interstitial space between pro-
gressivism and conservatism. And as I hope to show, it is only through
an analysis of the philosophical and political tensions existing within the
French revolutionary bourgeoisie during the early s that one can
begin to understand the ‘paradoxical’ influence of Robespierrist
Jacobinism upon the English Romantics.
With this in mind, the first two chapters of this thesis will seek to estab-
lish the close relation between political theory and autobiographical
practice during the French Revolution, firstly by outlining the ideologi-
cal underpinnings of Rousseauvian republicanism, and subsequently by
examining its politics of confession. Then I shall endeavour to show how
this can supply us with a new critical context for thinking about English
Romanticism. The chapters that follow will look at the ways in which
some of the leading writers of the period rehearsed and reflected upon
the nature and effects of neo-Spartan Jacobinism, relating William
Godwin’s philosophical anarchism to Robespierre’s innovations in ethics
and jurisprudence, Mary Wollstonecraft’s polemical and personal writ-
ings to his theory of aesthetic education, and William Wordsworth’s
revolutionary poetics to his political psychology of Terror. The fifth
chapter will seek to justify discussion of an English ‘Jacobin’ tradition by
showing how Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on Population of  drove
a wedge between the ‘primitive’ and ‘progressive’ radicals of the period,
effectively reproducing the fratricidal split which had riven French
Jacobinism. Ironically, given Malthus’s stated aim of concluding the
revolutionary debate once and for all, he actually served to perpetuate
its terms well into the nineteenth century, such was the contentiousness
of his radically reactionary thesis. No one held faster to the terms of this
debate than William Hazlitt, whose belated republicanism is the subject
Introduction 
of my concluding chapter. In many ways Hazlitt brings this study to a
fitting close, for in his self-consciously ‘sour’ emulation of the rhetorical
strategies of Rousseau and Robespierre, he showed how Jacobin confes-
sion had degenerated since the turbulent s from an inverted expres-
sion of the revolutionary ideal into an incorrigible resistance to reform.
  

Despotism of liberty: Robespierre and the


illusion of politics

Concerning the French, I wish Buonaparte had stayed in Egypt,


and that Robespierre had guillotined Sieyès. These cursed complex
governments are good for nothing, and will ever be in the hands of
intriguers. The Jacobins were the men; and one house of repre-
sentatives, lodging the executive in committees, the plain and
common system of government. The cause of republicanism is
over, and it is now only a struggle for dominion. There wanted a
Lycurgus1 after Robespierre, a man loved for his virtue, and bold,
and inflexible, and who should have levelled the property of France,
and then would the Republic have been immortal, and the world
must have been revolutionised by example.2


At the end of a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge of  December ,
which was written immediately after Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état of
 Brumaire, the young republican poet Robert Southey expressed sen-
timents which went directly against the grain of history. Not only did he
distance himself from the counter-revolutionary consensus that was
growing in England at this time, he also rejected the claims of Bonaparte
and Emmanuel Sieyès that the French Constitution of  represented
the final fulfilment of the revolutionary ideal.3 In his impatience with
contemporary politics on either side of the Channel, Southey harked
back to the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution, the period lasting
from  to  during which the First Republic had been governed
according to uncompromisingly egalitarian principles. As is well known,
this phase was to culminate in Maximilien Robespierre’s infamous
‘Reign of Terror’, which resulted in the imprisonment and execution of
many thousands of people. By  fewer and fewer English radicals still
looked to France as the land of liberty and promise, and an even smaller
number were concerned to rehabilitate Robespierre’s reputation. How

Despotism of liberty 
then do we explain Southey’s belated enthusiasm for neo-Spartan prin-
ciples? To what extent was it shared by other radical writers of the
period? And how significant is it to an understanding of English
Romanticism in general?
By the later s the leading propagandists of the English counter-
revolution were committed to vilifying Robespierrist Jacobinism. Above
and beyond that, however, they were also keen to collapse the differences
between the various phases of the Revolution. In one of the first
extended historical accounts of the period, a two-volume set of
Biographical Memoirs of the French Revolution (), John Adolphus was to
represent it as a uniformly disastrous phenomenon, rehearsing the
charge that had been made earlier and even more forcefully by Edmund
Burke in his Letters on the Regicide Peace of –. And as time went on not
only staunch loyalists like Adolphus and Burke, but also former radicals
like Samuel Taylor Coleridge came to endorse this version of events.
Ten years after receiving the letter quoted above, Coleridge was striving
to show the ideological unity of the French Revolution by arguing that
philosophical radicalism, Robespierrist Jacobinism and Bonapartism
were all products of the misguided rationalism of the French
Enlightenment.4 Clearly, in order to reject French revolutionary princi-
ples wholesale, it was necessary to argue that they made a whole.
Southey’s letter ought to remind us, however, not to accept the counter-
revolutionary narrative unquestioningly. It alerts us to the fact that it was
actually under construction during this period, and that there were still
other versions of revolutionary history available during the early s.
Southey describes Jacobinism in a way that clearly identifies it as a tradi-
tion of political primitivism, a ‘plain and common system of govern-
ment’ to be contrasted with the ‘cursed complex’ constitution of the new
Bonapartist regime. The would-be dictator Napoleon Bonaparte and
the liberal constitutionalist Emmanuel Sieyès are both condemned for
introducing a set of legislative arrangements designed to staunch indi-
vidual freedom and stifle the exercise of virtue. The Jacobins, by con-
trast, are celebrated for their simplicity and austerity, their neo-Spartan
enthusiasm for moral regeneration and their anti-modern mistrust of
private property. In this way Southey establishes a distinction between
primitive simplicity and modern complexity, both of which were cham-
pioned at different times during the legislative history of the Revolution,
but only one of which, in his eyes, was a proper expression of the revolu-
tionary ideal.
In wishing that there had been a ‘Lycurgus after Robespierre’ to bring
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
about a republic of true liberty and equality, Southey comes close to
repeating the sentiments he had expressed five years earlier in a letter
following hard upon news of the Thermidorean conspiracy, where he
had described Robespierre as a ‘benefactor of mankind’ whose death
was to be lamented as ‘the greatest misfortune Europe could have sus-
tained’. Despite or perhaps even because of his ‘great bad actions’ he
was seen as the modern incarnation of the ancient legislator, a man
whose courageous pursuit of moral regeneration had been ‘sacrificed to
the despair of fools and cowards’.5 Admittedly, Southey did not always
sustain this attitude, briefly succumbing to the appeal of
Thermidoreanism, which sought to demonise the Jacobin leader as a
means of recuperating the Revolution’s ‘beau idéal’. Nevertheless, for all
its fitfulness, the unexpected survival of Southey’s Robespierrism
through years of political disappointment and disillusionment invites us
to question modern assumptions about the decline of radical enthusi-
asm among the English radical intelligentsia in the later s.
According to most commentators, figures such as Southey, Wordsworth
and Coleridge moved slowly but surely away from radical politics in the
aftermath of the Terror, so that from  onwards they were taking
gradual steps on the road to conservatism.6 But Southey’s letters suggest
that this political trajectory may have been more eccentric and unstable
than the orthodox account will allow, prone to curious revolutions of
thought and sudden resurrections of feeling. It also suggests that the
leading writers of the English Romantic movement may have had a
deeper investment in the political psychology of revolutionary republi-
canism than has been generally recognised by literary history, much of
which has interpreted the radicalism of figures such as Wordsworth,
Coleridge and Southey almost entirely in terms of English traditions of
civic humanism and/or radical dissent.7
In drawing attention to the crisis of representation that was provoked
by the revolution, to the contemporary struggle to give this violent and
unpredictable phenomenon some kind of narrative form, Ronald
Paulson’s Representations of Revolution was a significant contribution to the
literary history of the s. But in drawing such a hard and fast distinc-
tion between French and English versions of the revolutionary ‘plot’,
Paulson tends to neglect the interplay of mutual influence. He suggests
that the French political class wanted to see the Revolution as a neo-clas-
sical drama, or a ‘primitivist’ romance, but that the unruliness of its
progress often made such generic straitjackets woefully inadequate.
Despotism of liberty 
Then he goes on to argue that the English, by contrast, tried to make
sense of events in France by filtering them through the literary categories
of sentimental fiction, gothic drama and grotesque farce.8 Since
Paulson, a number of critics have sought to fill in the details of his highly
suggestive but necessarily rather general account.9 But there has been no
serious attempt to argue for the influence of French revolutionary forms
and contexts upon English literary practice. This is not merely a ques-
tion of showing that figures such as Wordsworth, Godwin,
Wollstonecraft and Hazlitt were well versed in the nice distinctions in
French politics, but of arguing that the literary dynamics of their work
can only be understood with reference to the complex patterns of plot
and counter-plot, denunciation and confession that we find in French
republicanism. The fact that Southey felt ‘the cause of republicanism’
to be over in  did not prevent him from fantasising a new Lycurgus.
Similarly, in a famous passage on the French Revolution from Book  of
The Prelude of , William Wordsworth admitted to retaining a ‘Creed
which ten years have not annull’d’ that ‘the virtue of one paramount
mind / Would have . . . clear’d a passage for just government, / And left
a solid birthright to the State, / Redeem’d according to example given
/ By ancient Lawgivers’.10 In texts such as this the ideology of
Jacobinism survived neither as an allegiance to the French nation as
such, nor even as the literary remains of a legislative programme, but as
a complex of representational strategies, a characteristic mode of appre-
hending the relationship between politics and society.
Before addressing the influence of ‘Jacobinism’ upon English
Romantic writing, however, it is necessary to obtain a clearer sense
of what we mean by this term. It is important to differentiate ‘Jacobin
primitivism’ from the other forms of Jacobinism to which the Revolution
gave rise, forms such as the liberal theory of ‘complex government’
referred to by Southey. The first two chapters of this book will be cen-
trally concerned to explore this phenomenon. For it is my contention
that it is only by distinguishing between the two main bodies of political
theory that went into the making of revolutionary ‘Jacobinism’,11 bour-
geois liberalism on the one hand, and Rousseauvian civic humanism on
the other – a theoretical distinction that Robespierre tried to transform
into a practical difference between the Jacobins and the Gironde – that
we can truly understand the political psychology of French middle-class
republicanism, its fratricidal tensions, its metaphysic of morals, and its
displacements of its own class bias.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism


In the late s the worsening financial crisis in the French government
fuelled an increasingly widespread and vociferous enthusiasm for eco-
nomic and political reform. As the crisis reached its height, Louis XVI
agreed to reconvene the Estates General in order that a broad consensus
could be reached on the economic and fiscal measures required to
remedy the situation. Emmanuel Sieyès’s celebrated pamphlet Qu’est-ce
que le tiers état? was prompted by the king’s pronouncement that the three
Estates should meet and vote separately, as they had done in , and
not as a unified body, as most reformers had hoped. Daringly, Sieyès pro-
posed a single national government by the commoners of the Third
Estate, considering that this was the only way to banish the feudalism and
corporatism which had stifled French life. Drawing heavily on the writ-
ings of Turgot, Quesnay and the Enlightenment physiocrats, he argued
for a system of representative government in which private persons
would be able to gather together to assist in the formation of a truly
public authority while safeguarding the freedom of private commerce.12
In his discussion of the public good and its relation to private concerns,
Sieyès unashamedly employed the language of the joint-stock company,
indicating the inextricable link which existed at this time between liberal
notions of political reform and the logic of laissez-faire capitalism. In his
eyes, the individual had a ‘share’ in the general good, so it was in his own
private interest to make a ‘useful alliance’ with it.
According to Sieyès, the central impediment to the development of
this enabling separation of public and private, was corporate privi-
lege, the system of monopolies and exemptions which characterised
eighteenth-century French society. Of all these corporate interests, the
nobility was widely considered to be the largest and the most
unjustified. Having been divested as a body of its former public role
during the early modern period, by the mid-s the French aristoc-
racy had become largely unrelated to the public authority of the state,
preserving only the vestiges of its former ‘publicness’, the theatrical
show of privileges, titles and trappings attacked by Rousseau in his Lettre
à d’Alembert of . Once brought under public scrutiny, Sieyès believed
that the exclusive principle of aristocracy could not hope to remain
intact, for it was ‘alien’ to the nation, ‘first of all on principle, since its
brief does not derive from the people, secondly on account of its
purpose, since it consists in the defence not of the general but of the
particular interest’.13
Despotism of liberty 
Significantly, as he developed his critique, Sieyès was not content
merely to identify the nobility as an expensive and dysfunctional
monopoly (–), he was also driven to depict it as an evil sickness
gnawing away at the heart of a virtuous nation (). And in emphasis-
ing his opposition to feudal privilege, he regularly slipped from the
vocabulary of interest employed by the physiocrats into the republican
discourse of civic virtue that had been developed by Rousseau.14
While aristocrats will speak of their honour and keep watch over their interest,
the Third Estate, which is to say, the Nation, will develop its virtue, because if
corporate interest is egotism, the national interest is virtue. ()
Amid the excitement of  the principles of Rousseauvian civic
humanism and bourgeois liberalism were frequently juxtaposed by the
revolutionary bourgeoisie, with the result that a quintessentially meta-
physical language of public virtue was often dovetailed and confused
with a fundamentally commercial language of shared interest. However,
as the Revolution progressed, the fundamental differences that existed
between these two discourses began to manifest themselves, and this was
instrumental in creating the fratricidal tension which came to character-
ise middle-class French Jacobinism. But in order to be able to under-
stand the historical and political consequences of this ideological
confusion, it is first of all necessary to analyse its nature. With this in
mind, I shall now seek to contrast Rousseau’s politics of the will with the
politics of interest that had been developed by the physiocrats.


In his Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts of , Jean-Jacques Rousseau
developed his celebrated critique of the progress of civilisation. He con-
sidered that contemporary civilisation was corrupting the pursuit of
knowledge; that the development of reason was being inhibited by the
demands and constraints of patronage, salon culture and the literary
market-place; and that philosophy was being turned into an aristocratic
ornament, a kind of luxury commodity to be circulated and exchanged
like the latest fashion. His proposed remedy was for the king himself to
rescue the most enlightened of his subjects from the corruptions of the
court by appointing them as his independent advisers.15 This gesture was
very much a response to the circumstances arising from the radical
separation of the French monarchical state from the private realm of
civil society during the ancien régime. Debarred from a role in the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
political realm of legislation and administration, philosophy had been
left to shift for itself in the private realm of the market-place and aristo-
cratic patronage. Only if philosophers could free themselves from the
corrupting circumstances of economic dependence, Rousseau argued,
could they return to the pursuit of virtue and reason. In this, his first
extended analysis of the problems besetting modern societies, he was not
far from the model of enlightened absolutism that was favoured by the
physiocrats. In later works, however, Rousseau grew rather more scepti-
cal of the project of Enlightenment, whether conducted from within the
bourgeois public sphere in the private realm of letters, or through the
machinery of the monarchical state. So much so, indeed, that he gradu-
ally came to consider the productions of former colleagues and friends
such as Denis Diderot, Claude Helvétius and Baron Holbach as tending
to naturalise the unjustices and prejudices of modern society rather than
resist them. He became increasingly sceptical of the value of philosophi-
cal and literary debate as a vehicle for political change, and increasingly
committed to the notion of an unreflective consensus as the sovereign
principle of legislation.
In the course of his examination of the characteristics of a legitimate
state in the Contrat Social of , Rousseau developed a theory of civil
liberty that would allow each individual to enjoy the security afforded by
civil society without renouncing all claim to the liberty that was his
natural birthright. He did this by introducing a form of citizenship in
which the individual would identify himself with the general will of the
whole community, renouncing all his natural rights in order to receive
them back on a political basis. According to this view of things, each
man would give himself to no one in giving himself to all. The general
will would never be oppressive or unjust, in Rousseau’s analysis, since all
the conditions would be the same for everyone, so that no single person
would have any interest in making them burdensome for others.16 In his
mind, the achievement of moral liberty through political activity was
more important than the freedom to pursue one’s private interests: ‘the
mere impulse of appetite is slavery’, he wrote, in what amounted to a
paradoxical critique of Lockean liberalism, ‘while obedience to a law
which one prescribes to oneself is liberty’.17
Famously, Rousseau was adamant that the general will could not act:
it was a legislative power, not an executive one. Thus it needed a body
of ministers to implement its laws, a body that would have to be periodi-
cally vetted by the sovereign, and replaced at regular intervals to prevent
it from being corrupted by power. In favour of an elected executive,
Despotism of liberty 
Rousseau was nevertheless resistant to the notion of an elected legisla-
ture, and implacably opposed to the notion that the latter could ever
possess sovereignty, for according to him sovereignty could only ever rest
with the nation. ‘Every law which the people has not ratified in person’,
he wrote, ‘is null; it is not a law’.18 Unable to suggest ways in which this
sovereignty might express itself in a large state such as France, Rousseau
escaped from this conceptual difficulty by throwing down a set of
rhetorical challenges to his reader. He implied that the inability of the
present generation to imagine how an entire people could be assembled
to legislate in the national interest was itself a sign of the alienation of
civilised man: ‘You sacrifice more for profit than for liberty’, he declared
to his readers, ‘and fear slavery less than poverty.’19
The extent to which Rousseau did not offer a practical programme
for the setting up of a republican state has often been noted. Many critics
and political historians have found it extremely abstract in comparison
with other seminal texts in the history of political theory. Yet it has not
perhaps been sufficiently noticed that it is precisely at those moments
when practical problems begin to crowd in, that Rousseau actively
exploits the modern difficulty of imagining true citizenship. For in
certain respects, the deliberately paradoxical style of the Contrat Social
seems expressly designed to force each reader to discover for himself the
extent of his own corruption:
In a well-ordered city every man flies to the assemblies: under a bad govern-
ment no one cares to stir a step to get to them, because no one is interested in
what happens there, because it is foreseen that the general will shall not prevail,
and lastly because domestic cares are all-absorbing . . . As soon as any man asks
What does it matter to me? the State may be given up for lost.20

In this startling example of negative thinking, Rousseau defines the


public good almost exclusively in terms of the private obstacles to be sur-
mounted in the course of its pursuit. Crucially, he imagined public
opinion as a form of general sentiment anterior to critical debate, ‘more
a consensus of hearts than of arguments’, as Jürgen Habermas has
pointed out,21 inviting an entire generation of readers to rediscover
within themselves an enthusiasm for civic virtue by goading them to dis-
prove his pessimistic assessment of them.
This stands in sharp contrast to the model of municipal government
promulgated by the physiocrats. For example, in his Mémoire sur les muni-
cipalités of  Anne Robert Jacques Turgot had proposed a system in
which village assemblies representing local property interests would
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
control their own affairs while at the same time sending delegates to
county assemblies to address larger questions of policy. These county
assemblies would, in their turn, elect deputies to represent them at
regional and then at national level, thus building up a highly organised
consultative network based on the balancing of interests. And by this
means, a national network of political discussion would be established,
involving propertied citizens at every level, out of which a truly public
opinion would be formed.
Now as is quite evident, this model differed greatly from Rousseau’s
conception of the ideal form of political life, which drew heavily on the
democratic tradition of the ancient republics of Greece. For he consid-
ered that full political rights should be accorded to all the men of a
nation, irrespective of their wealth, and should express itself in the form
of a direct participation in the process of legislation. In place of Turgot’s
property principle, he introduced a strongly affective element into the
discourse of politics, considering an enthusiasm for the public good the
only necessary qualification for citizenship. Moreover, to his mind, the
true general will of a nation was not an aggregate or critical synthesis of
its individual wills – ‘a will of all’ as in Turgot – it was a metaphysical
principle, a form of aspiration towards the public good that necessitated
a complete transcendence of private interests. Thus it was that by locat-
ing political virtue in the hearts of men rather than in the ownership of
property, Rousseau effectively succeeded in reworking ancient civic
humanism into a politics of sensibility.
In the English civic humanist tradition of the eighteenth century the
independent landed aristocrat remained the type of the free citizen, his
landed wealth supposedly providing him with a permanent interest in
the wealth of his country as well as a moral bulwark against the cor-
rupting influence of credit and commerce.22 In France, however, the per-
petuation of feudal privileges and the declining public role of the
nobility during the course of the s made it less easy for the pre-rev-
olutionary bourgeoisie to regard the abstract figure of the aristocrat as
the model of disinterested virtue. It was not surprising, therefore, that in
his search for a prototype of the free and independent man Rousseau,
like Montesquieu before him, was to look to distant models, celebrating
the legislators of seventeenth-century Geneva and fifth-century Greece.
Nor was it surprising that he should have found it necessary to fudge the
crucial question of the relationship between land and civic virtue, con-
tinually invoking the patriotic zeal of the Spartans and Athenians, and
emphasising their fervent local attachments, while consistently under-
Despotism of liberty 
playing the extent to which they too had seen property as the absolute
foundation of politics.
Given its appeal beyond the borders of France in the revolutionary
period, it is important to emphasise the truly paradoxical nature of
Rousseau’s civic humanism. On the one hand the Contrat Social attached
great importance to patriotism and local tradition as a means of cement-
ing national unity, but it also presumed that it was possible to generate
‘primitive’ republican virtue ab initio from a purely theoretical model. In
this respect it was both a product of, and a resistance to the ‘travelling
theory’ of the French Enlightenment.23 Whereas the new social science
of Turgot and Claude-Adrien Helvétius was truly cosmopolitan in
nature, proposing a rational re-organisation of government and the law
which was not subject to space or time, in much of Rousseau’s writing
good government was always to be sensitive to local conditions, with the
constitution of a country emerging from the autochthonous customs of
its people.24 Oddly enough, therefore, the Contrat Social represented a
curious blend of the ancient and modern traditions, offering a surpris-
ingly cosmopolitan rendering of the ‘localist’ ideal. Within its pages its
author supplied a theoretical model for the regeneration of a polis, but
without suggesting how it might have to be adapted to fit specific con-
temporary circumstances.25 In this way, as Allan Bloom has recently
reiterated, ‘Rousseau introduced the taste for the small, virtuous com-
munity into the modern movement towards freedom and equality’,26
effectively encouraging the revolutionary fantasy that it might be possi-
ble to reinvent a modern nation like France or England in the likeness
of a city-state.


Given his solid grounding in physiocratic theory, why, then, did the Abbé
Sieyès choose to supplement his fundamentally liberal theory of govern-
ment with the dangerous rhetoric of Rousseauvian republicanism?
According to Keith Michael Baker, he did so because it was the readiest
means of forestalling the crisis of representation which was threatened
by the proposed revolt of the Third Estate.27 Without a tradition of
parliamentary government, the French monarchical state as it stood in
 was peculiarly ill-equipped to make the transition from an absolute
monarchy to a modern liberal democracy, primarily because its constitu-
tion recognised no sovereign principle apart from the king. Of course,
there were occasional assemblies like the aristocratic parlements and the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Estates General, whose purpose was to petition the king on behalf of
various sections of his people, but they did so purely as mandataires and
not as representatives. For according to the neo-Hobbesian theory by which
France was governed, the king was the sole sovereign principle of the
nation, and thus he alone was capable of representing it.
This is not to say that there were not theories of representative
government in circulation during the late s. On the contrary, a
current of thought running from Honoré Gabriel Riquet Mirabeau and
Turgot through to François Quesnay and the physiocrats had succeeded
in developing a number of different proposals for a system of national
representation. The problem was that this body of theory had conceived
of representation almost entirely in administrative and economic terms,
it left the tricky question of political sovereignty entirely untouched.
Hence Sieyès’s decision to make use of the Contrat Social in his Qu’est-ce
que le tiers état? was almost certainly motivated by the realisation that
Rousseau’s theory of popular sovereignty provided one of the only
means of justifying the proposed rebellion of the Third Estate against
the Estates General.28 In his celebrated treatise, Rousseau had made a
point of insisting upon the absolute and inalienable sovereignty of the
general will. A monarch might be employed as an executive minister of
a nation, he acknowledged, but it was a dangerous mistake to imagine
that he could ever possess sovereignty. Moreover, it was absolutely
impossible, according to Rousseau, that a nation could ever be bound
against its will to a particular constitution, because it was itself the
primary legislative principle of the state, the origin and cause of all law
and government. It is not surprising, therefore, that Sieyès should have
been keen to employ this concept of popular sovereignty during the
constitutional crisis of , for it allowed him to recommend the trans-
formation of the Third Estate into a new national assembly as an
example of the national will reaffirming its sovereign power over and
above a series of unjust laws and antiquated conventions. The only stick-
ing-point was that, while Rousseau was very useful to Sièyes on the
question of sovereignty, he was less than helpful on the matter of repre-
sentation. For there was, as we have seen, a profound mistrust of repre-
sentative government at the heart of Rousseau’s political theory, and
indeed of any principle of political deputation that went beyond the old
monarchical principle of the ‘binding mandate’. Hence the virtuosic
blending of two fundamentally incompatible political discourses – a
politics based on property and interest, and one based on popular
sovereignty – that Sieyès was forced to undertake, a blending which was,
Despotism of liberty 
initially at least, highly successful, in the sense that it played a major part
in actually bringing the constitutional revolution of  into being, but
which was ultimately, however, quite radically unstable, in that it became
a source of increasing political tension as time went on, and the conflict
between representative government and civic virtue began to make itself
felt.
And so, as we have seen, the distinctive relationship that existed
between the different ‘Estates’ in eighteenth-century France rendered it
difficult for the bourgeois revolutionaries of  to develop their critique
of the culture of corporatism and protectionism which had brought the
nation to the very brink of bankruptcy without launching into an attack
on the fundamental principle of aristocracy. And this, in turn, played a
part in inhibiting the formation of an English-style coalition of the prop-
ertied élite during the constitutional period of the Revolution. Hence
bourgeois revolutionaries like Sieyès and Mirabeau found themselves
rapidly impelled to ally themselves with ‘the people’, employing the
vocabulary of popular sovereignty which had been developed by
Rousseau and his followers in an attempt to harness the insurrectionary
energy of the sans-culottes in the service of their cause. Thus in many of
the pamphlets of the constitutional period an essentially liberal commit-
ment to property, law and freedom from state interference was danger-
ously supplemented by the language of ancient democracy.
This served to render the Revolution radical from the beginning,
according the popular discontents and disturbances of the period a
political validity and significance they might not otherwise have pos-
sessed. Moreover, the leading members of the Constituent Assembly
succeeded in politicising the urban sans-culottes without ever being pre-
pared to placate them, promising liberty, equality and fraternity while
really only being concerned to pursue a peculiarly modern, highly
limited and inescapably bourgeois notion of freedom. They may have
been keen to invoke the principle of popular sovereignty in –, but
the Constitution they finally produced in  contained a property
qualification which effectively barred huge swathes of the population
from active citizenship.29 Having pandered to the economic and politi-
cal aspirations of the working classes, and having allowed, and in many
cases encouraged, the growth of a network of political clubs and pres-
sure groups in the capital, ultimately they reneged on their political
promises. Such hypocrisy was always likely to incite popular resentment
and violence. And indeed it was in this way that the Frankenstein of
bourgeois politics encouraged the wrath of its ‘creature’ the Paris mob.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
In this context, tensions began to develop between those bourgeois
revolutionaries who believed themselves to be genuinely committed to
Rousseau’s democratic ideal, and those suspected of merely paying lip-
service to its principles. In the years following , during which the
Revolution was increasingly buffeted by acute financial crisis, foreign
invasion and civil war, the Jacobins emerged as the faction seemingly
most committed to the principle of popular sovereignty, striving to dis-
tinguish themselves from what they considered to be the hypocritical
republicanism of the Girondins. In the autumn of  Maximilien
Robespierre, one of the radical leaders of the Jacobin club and a deputy
in the newly formed National Convention, was moved to criticise the
room in the Tuileries that had been proposed as the site for the new
national assembly on account of the diminutive size of the public
gallery:
The entire nation has the right to know of the conduct of its representatives. It
would be desirable, if it were possible, that the representative assembly should
deliberate in the presence of all Frenchmen. The meeting place of the legisla-
tive body should be a grand and majestic edifice, open to twelve thousand spec-
tators. Under the eyes of such a huge number of witnesses, neither corruption
nor intrigue nor treachery would dare to show themselves, the general will alone
would be heeded, the voice of reason and the public interest would have sole
audience.30
Siding with Rousseau against the physiocrats, Robespierre saw ‘public
opinion’ in terms of a single ‘voice of reason’ expressing itself sponta-
neously and unreflectively; he did not represent it as a product of
rational-critical debate. Sharing the former’s mistrust of the principle of
representation, he wanted the new assembly hall of the republic to be a
utopian realm of direct democracy, a room in which a large number of
citizen-spectators could gather to supervise the workings of the legisla-
tive body, considering that no intrigue or faction could survive in such a
powerful vessel of the ‘general will’. A product of the general enthusi-
asm for transparency which had been a leading characteristic of revolu-
tionary politics since , there was nevertheless something almost
pathological about Robespierre’s desire for openness, for increasingly
after  it contained within it a paranoid suspicion of opacity, an irra-
tional mistrust of any individual or corporate body resisting the search-
light of the state. Fuelled by the fantasy of reinventing France as an
ancient democracy, he decided to dispense with what liberal thinkers
such as Sieyès and Turgot had considered to be the enabling reciprocity
of the public and the private sphere by seeking to render everything
Despotism of liberty 
subject to public scrutiny. And finally this developed into an increasing
tendency to see private gatherings of any kind as part of an active and
malevolent ‘aristocratic’ conspiracy against the war-torn republic of
France.31 It was entirely characteristic, then, that when he ultimately
gained real power in  as a member of one of the executive com-
mittees of the National Convention, his commitment to popular sover-
eignty manifested itself in terms of a terrifying war of public authority
upon the very principle of private life.


Over the last twenty years there has been an ongoing battle within the
field of revolutionary historiography concerning the issue of whether
the descent of the French Revolution into bloodshed and terror in
– was a historical accident – the product of a chaotic confluence
of historical circumstances – or whether it was the logical outcome of
the political ideology developed by the revolutionaries themselves.
Where revisionary historians such as François Furet and Simon Schama
have argued that the widespread violence of the period was the
inevitable consequence of the demand for bloodshed encoded within
the ‘revolutionary catechism’, some commentators, such as the post-
marxist historian Gwynne Lewis, have tried to argue that the Terror of
– should be seen as an essentially reactionary measure, a desperate
attempt to cope with the twin threat posed by the counter-revolution and
popular politics.32 One could argue, however, that this is something of a
false opposition, since these two different approaches are by no means
incompatible, either theoretically or practically. Indeed, as Lewis points
out, it is actually possible to see them as standing in some kind of dialec-
tical relation to one another, the product of a continuing but by no
means necessary opposition in the field of historical studies between
social history and cultural history. In this study, therefore, I shall not be
seeking to choose between these two explanatory models, but rather to
acknowledge what is powerful and compelling in each, to highlight the
adverse circumstances out of which the ideology of the Terror might
have been seen to emerge, while also acknowledging the fatal principle
at the heart of revolutionary discourse, its inescapable dynamic of fra-
ternity and fratricide.
Robespierre’s response to the subsistence crisis of – provides a
good example of the way in which the ‘revolutionary catechism’ was to
develop under the Jacobins. It came at a time when inflation had risen
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism

. Sketch of Robespierre (), by Gérard, musée Carnavelet, Paris. The text


underneath reads: ‘green eyes, pale complexion, green striped nankeen jacket, blue
waistcoat with blue stripes, white cravate striped with red (sketch from the life at a
sitting of the Convention)’.
Despotism of liberty 
to such a height that suppliers of goods and services, such as farmers,
merchants and grocers, became increasingly reluctant to part with their
assets. This caused prices to rise still further, setting off violent popular
agitation and widespread allegations of hoarding. In response to this
situation, Girondins such as Jean Marie Roland de la Platière and Marie
Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat Condorcet remained committed to the
principle of free trade. But as the pressure brought to bear upon the
National Convention by the popular movement increased, Robespierre
was eventually moved to denounce the way in which the policy of
laissez-faire was being exploited by the cupidité homicide of the commer-
cial interest.
In a move that was at once revolutionary and thoroughly anti-
modern, he subordinated the right of property to the right of sub-
sistence:
The food necessary to man is as sacred as life itself. Everything that is necessary
to the subsistence of the community is common property that belongs to society
as a whole. It is only the surplus which may become private property or be given
over to traders. Any mercantile speculation that I make at the expense of my
fellows is not trade, it is robbery and fratricide.33
In the network of associations that had been bequeathed him by
Rousseau there were strong links in Robespierre’s mind between the evils
of commerce, the defence of its principles by Encyclopédistes such as
Turgot, the patronage of such philosophes by eminent nobles, and the
selfish greed of the aristocracy as a whole.34 This led him to question the
distinction that bourgeois economists had sought to make between
modern laissez-faire capitalism and the protectionism of the ancien
régime. For it seemed to him that in the new culture of free trade, cor-
porate interests had not been eradicated, they had merely become less
visible: aristocratic vices continued to lurk beneath the mask of public
patriotism. Thus his allegation that ‘fratricidal’ sentiments were circu-
lating within the class of négociants can be seen to have been based on the
fear that the new culture of private enterprise merely perpetuated the
corruption of the feudal state. And the fact that some of the leading
Girondins did not seem to want to take action against hoarders only
served to confirm his growing impression that they were in some way
complicit with the defenders of the old order. Indeed as time went on he
became progressively more convinced that they were in fact secretly
hand-in-glove, both fuelled by selfish greed, and a desire to exploit the
misfortunes of ‘the people’.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
In the struggle between the Jacobins and the Girondins that took
place between  and  Robespierre sought to associate Brissot35
and his associates with the aristocratic corruption of the ancien régime
by interpreting their professed admiration of the social and political the-
ories of the philosophes as indicative of a continuing connection with
court culture. In his analysis, Jean D’Alembert, Denis Diderot, Helvétius
and many of the other men of letters of the mid-century had all tried to
pass themselves off as men of independence and virtue, but ultimately
time had proved them to be mere flatterers of the nobility, salonniers fully
conniving with the existing order. And what is more, they had made their
servility apparent in their persecution of Rousseau, who had recounted
their universal conspiracy against him in the pages of his posthumous
Confessions:
I could observe that the Revolution has made the great men of the ancien
regime seem a lot smaller; that if the academicians and mathematicians which
Monsieur Brissot offers to us as models did combat and ridicule priests,36 never-
theless they also courted the nobility, and worshipped kings, from which they
gained much advantage, and everybody knows the ferocity with which they per-
secuted virtue and the spirit of liberty in the person of Jean-Jacques, whose
sacred image I see before me, the one true philosopher of that period who
merited those public honours which have since been offered only to charlatans
and scoundrels.37
From  onwards Robespierre was to make much of this link
between the Girondins and the philosophes. He was to deplore the fact
that the Rolandins and Brissotins had abandoned the publicity of the
Jacobin club in order to discuss politics in the resolutely private salons of
the rich. This confirmed them, in his mind, as ‘ambitious courtiers,
adroit in the art of deception, who, hiding behind the mask of patriot-
ism, meet frequently with the massed ranks of the aristocracy in order
to stifle my voice’.38 In public, he suggested, the Girondins might wear
the mask of patriotism, but in private they were speculating on the
possibility of improving their personal fortunes and furthering their
political careers. Although they might invoke the principles of liberty
and equality, and pay lip-service to the notion of public virtue, their
private behaviour showed them to be thorough hypocrites. One of the
foremost charges that the Montagnards brought against the Brissotins at
their trial in the autumn of  was that they had been ‘speculators’.
The insinuation was that not only politically but also financially these
republican brothers had been ‘playing the Revolution like a casino’, as
Despotism of liberty 
François Furet rather memorably described it. And spéculation was
doubly reprehensible for Robespierre, in that, as in English, it referred
not only to the corrupt practice of gambling in stocks and shares, but
also, on a more explicitly political level, to the operations of a resolutely
private imagination, thus reinforcing the connection that the Jacobins
were fond of making between ‘progressive’ philosophy, bourgeois self-
interest and moral corruption.
In his important study, Class, Ideology and the Rights of Nobles during the
French Revolution, Patrice Higonnet gives a compelling account of the
republican phase of the Revolution which does much to explain, and in
many ways to support, Robespierre’s analysis of the political conduct of
the Gironde. He considers that after the flight of the king to Varennes
in , any possibility of a lasting entente between liberal nobles and
the socially conservative bourgeoisie was effectively ruined. As constitu-
tional monarchy became less of an option, the middle class was driven
into an alliance with the people against the aristocracy. In – the
Girondin faction saw war against Austria and Prussia as a way of
binding the ‘plebs’ to the government and its constitution. In Higonnet’s
analysis, Brissot and his colleagues constructed the phantom of an aris-
tocratic counter-revolution both inside and outside France as a means of
cementing national unity. He considers that their oratory against nobles
during this period was ‘largely for show’, in other words that the nobil-
ity was merely a convenient scapegoat for the continuing economic
crisis, a way of deflecting the attention of the sans-culottes from the
problem of subsistence, and of distracting them from their own political
agenda. He argues that the Girondins had no intention of acquiescing
in the demands of the urban working class for a redistribution of prop-
erty and for pension schemes for the poor, but they continued to indulge
the rhetoric of popular sovereignty in public while courting conservative
opinion in private.39
While it might be possible to argue that Higonnet seriously under-
estimates the nature and scale of the counter-revolution at this time, and
thereby fails to grasp the very real grounds the Girondins might have had
for indulging in anti-aristocratic hysteria, his account of their apparent
duplicity is highly illuminating. He sees a gap between their public pro-
nouncements and their private sentiments during this period, arguing
that the very fact that their social and domestic movements were slightly
less than transparent to the public gaze was enough in itself to arouse
the suspicions of many of their former colleagues in the Jacobin club.40
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
What rendered Robespierre immune from such suspicions was that he
was known by friends and enemies alike to have no private life. Not only
that, but he was also known to have no private interests. There was no
question of him ever having been guilty of any financial impropriety, as
there was with his flamboyant fellow Jacobin Georges Danton, nor of
him being intemperate or immoderate in any way. Similarly, there was
no question of him having any personal allegiances to interfere with his
repeatedly professed devotion to the public good. This was one of the
main sources of his prolonged popularity, both in the Jacobin club and
the Paris Commune, the mainstays of his power, and in the National
Convention, where he remained for a long time a figure of unimpeach-
able virtue in the eyes of the vast majority of deputies, who remained
convinced of his incorruptibility even after he had begun to emerge as
a propagandist for terrorist principles. One of the most widely read
authorities on the Revolution during the Romantic period, the loyalist
historian Lacretelle jeune, offers a remarkably vivid, if predictably rather
unsympathetic account of the appearance of complete integrity that
Robespierre displayed:
He was a man with a single thought, a single passion, a single will; his dark soul
never disclosed itself even to his accomplices; as insensible to pleasure as he was
to the affections which pass through the hearts of even the purest of men,
nothing could distract him from his stubborn pursuit: invariable in his
hypocrisy; it was always in the name of virtue that he would invite sedition or
provoke a massacre.41
Despite his evident mistrust of Robespierre’s ultimate intentions,
Lacretelle helps to show why he seemed to embody the discourse of
public virtue more fully than any of his contemporaries. By adhering
doggedly to the logic of the revolutionary catechism, by endlessly pur-
suing its core values, he was always able to suggest a certain half-heart-
edness in his opponents’ political practice, which is one of the reasons
why a detailed study of his writings and speeches can offer such a pow-
erful insight into the political psychology of the Revolution as a whole.42
As François Furet has most memorably put it: ‘Robespierre is an immor-
tal figure not because he reigned supreme over the Revolution for a few
months, but because he was the mouthpiece of its purest and most tragic
discourse.’43
Despotism of liberty 


Having encouraged a high degree of political consciousness in the Paris
sans-culottes during the first years of the Revolution, it was difficult for the
National Convention to cope with the monster it had created. And by
 the enragés in the Paris sections had become so militant that even the
radical deputies of the Mountain were finding them hard to control.
Jacques Roux one of the leaders of the popular movement, was to
express his dissatisfaction with the ‘Jacobin’ Constitution of June  in
these outspoken terms:
Does it outlaw speculation? No. Have you decreed death for hoarders? No.
Have you restricted freedom of trade? No. Well, we must inform you that you
have yet to go to the limits of securing happiness for the People. Liberty is no
more than a hollow mirage if one class freely can force another into starvation
and continue unpunished. Equality is a vain mockery when the rich, through
monopoly, can hold powers of literal life and death over their fellows.44
A political force of considerable power and autonomy, the sans-culottes
had an agenda of their own, and it was one with which the bourgeois
revolutionaries in the Jacobin club were only partly in sympathy.45
During the autumn of  Robespierre had attacked the Girondins for
employing the language of popular sovereignty without a proper
commitment to it. But he himself was always to remain implacably
opposed to the systematic redistribution of landed property that was
later demanded by some of the leaders of the Paris sections.46 Despite
his apparently radical assertion of the right to subsistence, he was not,
finally, a supporter of the loi agraire. But the history of the Revolution
since  had shown that it was impossible for a bourgeois revolution-
ary to be seen to resist the will of ‘the people’, and so in order to disguise
his class bias from both the Paris sections and himself, Robespierre was
forced to displace his conflict with the sans-culottes onto a metaphysical
plane. He did this by transforming the Revolution from a campaign to
improve living standards into a war of public virtue against private
corruption. Billed as a war of the general will against aristocratic con-
spiracy, the revolutionary Terror of – can thus also be seen as an
unconscious attempt to flee from the seemingly insoluble conflict that
was raging at that time between the relative claims of poverty and prop-
erty.
In a review in the Deutsch-franzöische Jahrbücher for , Karl Marx
criticised the Jacobins’ neglect of the social and economic causes of
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
inequality. According to this view of things, Robespierrist politics was an
extreme manifestation of the Aristotelian notion of man as first and
foremost a zoon politikon:
Far from identifying the principle of the state as the source of social ills, the
heroes of the French Revolution held social life to be the source of political
problems. Thus Robespierre regarded great wealth and great poverty as an
obstacle to pure democracy. He therefore wished to establish a universal system
of Spartan frugality.47

Implemented in response to the increasingly violent demands of the


Paris sections, Robespierre’s policy of the Maximum, which was instituted
on  September , was a desperate attempt to guarantee a supply of
food to the poor and to eradicate hoarding by fixing the prices of grocery
and household items at no more than a third above their level in . It
was in many ways the inevitable sequel to his affirmation of the right of
subsistence in . However, as soon as the measure was announced, all
of the products which it sought to fix were bought up extremely rapidly,
creating an immediate shortage. Soon producers were refusing to supply
new stock, which set off a fresh wave of accusations about hoarding. In
the Maximum Marx saw, at one and the same time, the laudable expres-
sion of egalitarian values and a complete failure to understand the basic
principles of political economy. In his eyes it identified Robespierre in
particular as the epitome of the purely political intelligence, a man who
existed entirely in the ‘imaginary’ realm of politics, interpreting eco-
nomic inequality simply as a failure of the will. And whether one con-
siders it an inept response to the economic problems of the period, or a
courageous putting on, in the face of growing popular intimidation, of
the harness of revolutionary necessity, this politics of the will was a
characteristic of Robespierre’s political theory. Indeed it formed the
absolute foundation of his justification of revolutionary government,
which he was always keen to describe as the product of an active and
voluntary policy, rather than a set of desperate and expedient measures.
The first seeds of this new attitude to government were sown in the
summer of , when the revolutionary state began to award itself
extraordinary new powers designed to expedite not only the formulation
and implementation of emergency legislation, but also to bring the
apprehension and punishment of counter-revolutionary activists under
central control. This process was already well underway by the time
Robespierre joined the Committee of Public Safety, but it was left to him
and his formidable lieutenant Saint-Just to attempt its theoretical and
Despotism of liberty 
moral justification. Rocked by the royalist uprisings in north-western
and southern France, and continually harassed by angry allegations
from the leaders of the popular movement that the economic situation
was being exploited by the speculative practices of the mercantile bour-
geoisie, he was eventually driven to cut through the Gordian knot of the
revolutionary crisis by representing it as a single battle of wills:
One would say that the two opposing spirits that have been represented in the
past as disputing the empire of nature are at this significant moment in human
history locked in combat, in order to decide forever the destiny of the world,
and that France is the stage of this formidable struggle.48
By this means, he transformed economic problems into political prob-
lems; and questions of social practice into issues of political conscience.
In his hands, the state became less interested in the difficult job of eradi-
cating social injustice in civil society, and much more concerned to
pursue the revolutionary struggle in the ‘imaginary’ realm of politics. In
his vision of things, everything that remained opaque to Jacobin politi-
cal consciousness was re-imagined as a force that was fundamentally
inimical to it. The paradoxical suggestion in the Contrat Social that those
who broke the laws of the state ceased to be entitled to its protection was
used to justify a purge of all those citoyens who were deemed to have acted
in an unpatriotic fashion.49 As Saint-Just announced to the National
Convention on the  October :
It is not only the traitors whom you must punish, but also those who are
indifferent; you must punish whoever is passive towards the Revolution and
does nothing for it. For once the French people have expressed their will, every-
thing that is opposed to it is outside the sovereign body; and everything that is
outside the sovereign body is an enemy.50
With the infamous ‘Law of Suspects’ of September , which was
passed in the same month as the Maximum, this approach was given leg-
islative authority, for it contained a long list of the many ways in which
a citizen might render him or herself ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the govern-
ment, a list which conflated major crimes such as actively conspiring to
overthrow the republic with such vague charges as failing to steadily
manifest one’s devotion to the Revolution. The immediate consequences
of this policy were harrowing, as the English poetess and travel writer
Helen Maria Williams made clear, in the course of her vivid eye-witness
account of life in Paris during the autumn of :
The prisons became more and more crowded and increasing numbers were
every day dragged to the scaffold. Suspect was the warrant of imprisonment, and
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
conspiracy was the watchword of murder. One person was sent to prison because
aristocracy was written on his countenance; another because it was said to be
written in his heart. Many were deprived of liberty because they were rich;
others, because they were learned, and most who were arrested enquired their
reasons in vain.51
This distinctive use of the word ‘suspect’ is highly characteristic of the
Jacobin period, primarily because it seems deliberately intended to
provoke fear through its elision of the difference between what it might
mean to be suspected of a crime and what it might mean to be guilty of
it. It presented the citizens of the First Republic with a stark choice:
either to suspect or to be a suspect; it did not appear to recognise the
possibility that one might occupy a passive position between the two.
Robespierre was always to maintain that good citizens had no reason to
be afraid of revolutionary government. As he said to the Convention in
his infamous speech on political morality of  February : ‘The first
maxim of your political creed must be to lead the people by reason and
the enemies of the people by terror.’52 But in many ways his language of
political terror actually seems to have been designed to call the civic
virtue of each and every citizen into doubt, encouraging every man and
woman into a potentially endless round of anxious self-questioning, pre-
cisely on account of the equation it made between fear and culpability.
Transforming denunciation into a kind of revolutionary virtue, it
demanded from everyone an active engagement in the cause of liberty,
politicising every aspect of social life. But it was also concerned to pre-
serve the execution of revolutionary government as the ultimate pre-
rogative of the committees and tribunals, ensuring that the actual
exercise of political terror remained the monopoly of the state.


In Representations of Revolution Ronald Paulson used psychoanalytic theory
to shed light on the political culture of the French Revolution. He saw
the execution of the king in January  as a revolutionary ‘killing of
the father’ which brought about a collective regression in the French
political class back to the stage of primary narcissism. In Paulson’s mind,
this was linked with another kind of regression practised during the
Jacobin period: the adaption of neo-classical models of dress and
demeanour. More recently, Dorinda Outram has examined how the
bourgeois revolutionaries tried to develop ‘stoical’ modes of behaviour
Despotism of liberty 
in order to try and represent to themselves their newfound political
agency. Developing these insights, it might be possible to see the Jacobin
period as a kind of historical version of Jacques Lacan’s famous ‘mirror’
stage, that moment in the early life of a child when he or she glimpses
its own image in a mirror, and begins to develop a sense of its own sub-
jectivity from the free-standing reflection there contained. The autono-
my and agency that the still dependent infant sees in this reflection is
entirely and completely imaginary, an unreachable ideal to which it will
aspire in vain. Nevertheless, Lacan argues, it is only by identifying with
this image that the child begins to construct the fiction of an inde-
pendent self, without which he cannot function as an active human
being.53
For the children of the French Revolution what was glimpsed in the
mirror of political theory was the realm of pure politics; and the image
contained within it was the figure of the public man, a conception at
once at once inspiring and terrifying, inspiring in its ideal embodiment
of freedom and autonomy, terrifying in its remorseless exposure of
private weakness and personal dependency. For this reason the image of
the public man with which the revolutionaries identified was to take on
the ambivalence of the famous doppelgänger or ‘double’, eloquently
described by Sigmund Freud in his much-quoted essay on ‘The
Uncanny’. Anticipating Lacan, Freud interpreted this double, or mirror-
image of the self, as a product of the primary stage of narcissism, seeing
it as a figure that could be seen to offer ‘an insurance against the destruc-
tion of the ego’, and thus a kind of ‘assurance of immortality’, but which
was always capable of transforming itself, after that stage had been sur-
mounted, into an uncanny ‘harbinger of death’. Thus despite its initial
appearance as a guarantee of individual autonomy, the double, in
Freud’s terms, always had the potential of becoming a terrifying figure
of accusation and retribution.54
To some extent, this dynamic provides a model for thinking about the
Jacobin illusion of politics, which it might be helpful to regard as a kind
of ‘double’ of social reality, an alternative universe of transparent and
voluntary action, acting as a kind of dangerous adjunct to the recalci-
trant, reluctant realm of everyday civil society, at once its professed pro-
tector and its potential persecutor. But it might also be seen to elucidate
Robespierre’s role within the frame of the revolutionary drama, most
specifically as the figure in whom the terrifying ambivalence of the
public man was most powerfully present, a statesman who was for many
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
of his political contemporaries a kind of assurance of immortality,
before his eventual metamorphosis into an uncanny harbinger of death.
In her seminal work On Revolution Hannah Arendt found the source of
this doubling and splitting in the very pages of the Contrat Social. In her
eyes, it was Rousseau’s fundamentally dialectical definition of civic
virtue that led the revolutionaries to set themselves on the path to self-
destruction. For he had suggested that in order to become a true citizen
of the main body politic each particular man would have to rise against
himself in his own particularity, thinking that it was only by this means
that he would arouse in himself his own antagonist, the general will.
Effectively, she reasoned, this meant that in the realm of his political
theory, to partake in citizenship ‘each national must rise and remain in
constant rebellion against himself ’.55
In the bitter struggle between the Jacobins and the Girondins which
took place after the institution of the First Republic in , this ten-
dency towards self-division at the heart of revolutionary discourse
expressed itself in terms of recurrent rhetoric of paradox. During this
period of republican in-fighting, both factions showed themselves to be
assiduous practitioners of the ‘revolutionary catechism’, adopting dia-
metrically opposed positions for identical reasons, which meant they
found themselves employing a language that was often merely an echo
of that of their antagonists. True patriotism was always being faced by
its masked counterfeit, as Robespierre told the Girondins in November
:
Thus, you only speak of dictatorship in order to exercise it yourself without
restraint, you only speak of proscriptions and tyranny in order to tyrannise and
proscribe.56

Such formulations were to become a leading characteristic of the lan-


guage of revolutionary government, which both feared and fed upon the
possibility that there might be an intimate link between apparent oppo-
sites. History had taught the Jacobins that what had seemed a united
front against counter-revolution was always capable of dividing against
itself, as the revolutionary movement suffered a succession of supposed
‘betrayals’ from within its own ranks, firstly from the feuillants, then from
the Brissotins, and then finally, in the early part of , from both the
Dantonists and the so-called ultras. Betrayal was the recurrent nightmare
of the First Republic, but it also became its energising principle. The sus-
picion that people and principles might be subject to uncanny reversals,
and that patriotism might turn out to be its opposite, helped to fuel the
Despotism of liberty 
policy of the Terror, but not without repeatedly calling the good faith of
its own practitioners into question.
Defending the Terror from the charge that it merely reproduced the
repression of the ancien régime, Robespierre gave an extended speech
on ‘political morality’ in February  in which he offered a striking
formulation which sought to make an absolute distinction between the
two:
The government of the Revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.57
It is likely that Edmund Burke had this type of statement in mind
when he said of the French nation in his Letters on the Regicide Peace that
‘the foundation of their Republic is laid in moral paradoxes’, and the
temptation for historians has always been to share his rather scornful
view. But while it is of course important to acknowledge the deleterious
historical consequences of this language of paradox, it is also worth
recognising the way in which, like the vocabulary of suspicion men-
tioned above, it was a canny instrument of political terror. It was a pow-
erful device because it forced its auditors into an active exploration of
the distinction between revolutionary government and the absolutism of
the ancien régime in a way that made any confusion between the two
seem a culpable failure of political understanding, for as Robespierre
argued: ‘Those who . . . call the revolutionary laws arbitrary or tyranni-
cal are stupid sophists who seek to confuse total opposites.’58 Like
Rousseau, he suggested that those readers who found such statements
impossible were almost certainly thinking too much, and in the wrong
kind of way; a paradox, after all, was just another word for a new truth,
a truth which had not yet become part of the general orthodoxy.
However, even as Robespierre’s paradoxical rhetoric laboured to
establish the absolute difference between republicanism and aristocracy,
it also preserved the possibility of their secret proximity. Unconsciously,
it presented them as brothers as well as opposites. And in the extended
analysis of the nature of counter-revolutionary conspiracy which
formed a central part of the ‘political morality’ speech, Robespierre
went on to explore this fratricidal link, almost in spite of himself. Initially,
he tried to strike an upbeat note. Such was the success of the republican
movement, he argued, that no longer did anybody dare to broadcast
aristocratic principles. Unfortunately, however, this did not mean that
aristocracy had been totally eradicated; it simply meant that it had been
forced to take up the mask of patriotism, mimicking republican dis-
course in an attempt to subvert it from within. Sometimes they had
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
sought to dilute revolutionary zeal, as the Dantonists had done; some-
times, as in the case of the Hébertists, they had urged it to self-destruc-
tive excess. In each case true republicans had been temporarily seduced
by the mere performance of patriotism, but they would know to be more
watchful in future:
In treacherous hands, all of the remedies to our ills will become poisons; every-
thing that you are capable of doing, they will turn against you; even the truths
that we have just put forward.59
Obsessed by counter-revolution, and yet increasingly unable to dis-
tinguish it from itself, in this formulation revolutionary discourse
becomes prey to a form of self-distrust. Thus it became crucial for
Robespierre to argue that the real difference between the despotism of
liberty against tyranny and its absolute opposite lay in the inner inten-
tions lying behind them, precisely because they were so identical in their
effects. Hence he sought repose in the notion of the conscience as the
only real proof of virtue, a deeply internal principle, existing anterior to
both political language and political praxis, outside the realm of conven-
tional representation. And this is why it is tempting to see his later
speeches in terms of an identifiably Rousseauvian tradition of confes-
sion, for as he said on the day preceding the Thermidorean conspiracy
against him: ‘Take my conscience away from me, and I would be the
most unhappy of men’.60
  

The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre


On the  October  the leading Girondin deputy Jean-Baptiste
Louvet rose before the National Convention to accuse Maximilien
Robespierre of aspiring to the dictatorship of the new French Republic.
In his review of the momentous events that had led up to the dissolution
of the monarchy, Louvet sought to make a distinction between the
‘popular’ insurrection of  August and the spate of summary execu-
tions in the prisons of Paris in September. While the former had been a
spontaneous uprising of the people against oppression, ‘the work of all’,
the latter had been the perpetrated by a small band of ‘scoundrels’. ‘The
people of Paris know how to fight’, he insisted, ‘but they do not know
how to murder.’ Far from being ‘popular’, in fact, the September mas-
sacres had been a deliberate attempt by Robespierre to round up and
despatch his political opponents:
Then we saw this man urging firstly the Jacobins and then the electoral assem-
bly to denounce certain philosophers, writers and patriotic orators; then we saw
his deputy conspirators declaring Robespierre to be the only virtuous man in
France, the only one to whom the task of saving the people could be entrusted;
this man who has been full of base flattery for a few hundred citizens, whom he
dubbed ‘the people of Paris’, then ‘the people’, and finally ‘the sovereign’ . . .
and who, after having celebrated the power and sovereignty of the people, never
forgot to add that he was one of the people himself, a tactic as crude as it is
blameworthy, the kind of ruse which has always been useful to usurpers from
Caesar to Cromwell.1
Despite publicly proclaiming themselves to be the defenders of the
people, the Girondins had become privately unsympathetic to the politi-
cal demands of the Parisian working class during the course of .
And as this ambivalence began to make itself felt, they became mark-
edly less ‘popular’ than their Jacobin counterparts. For while the
Jacobins were willing to acknowledge the influence of the Paris sections,
the Girondins began to favour a political programme based on a broader

 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
and more truly national consensus. This was why Louvet sought to
expose Robespierre’s attempted appropriation of the notion of ‘the
people’ by questioning how he could treat the actions of the militant sec-
tionnaires as if they were an unmediated expression of the general will of
France. But he could not make his opposition to the plebeian politics of
the capital too explicit without attracting the charge of federalism, for
in the war-torn climate of  it was becoming increasingly more
difficult to argue that more autonomy should be accorded to the
provinces without being accused of seeking to divide the nation against
itself. So in order not to jeopardise his own professed commitment to
popular sovereignty, Louvet tried to characterise Robespierre as an
‘insolent demagogue’ publicly flattering the people while privately pan-
dering to his own personal ambition.
In the reply to Louvet which he presented to the Convention on 
November , Robespierre gave a strident defence of the September
Massacres. Where fellow Jacobins such as Danton, who had been far
more closely involved with the events themselves, were notably subdued,
he was steadfast and outspoken.2 Very deliberately, he placed the mas-
sacres in their context, first of all by describing the progress of the war
during the month of August, then by reminding the Convention how the
Duke of Brunswick’s manifesto, a virulently counter-revolutionary
document threatening France with imminent invasion, had heightened
popular tension in the capital. In the aftermath of the insurrection of 
August, he argued, the people had seen many of its sworn enemies lan-
guish in gaol without being tried or punished, and it was this combina-
tion of circumstances that had led to the violence in the prisons:
In the midst of this universal turmoil, the approach of foreign enemies awakes
a feeling of indignation and of vengeance smouldering in all hearts against the
traitors who had summoned them. Before abandoning their hearths, their
wives, their children, the citizenry, which successfully stormed the Tuileries,
demands the often-promised punishment of conspirators; it runs to the
prisons.3

Significantly, there is no division of revolutionary labour in


Robespierre’s account of the journées of : the people are depicted as
acting unanimously, simultaneously and in unison throughout. The men
who perpetrated the September executions are the same men who are
about to leave for the eastern front to fight for their country; moreover
they were all present at the storming of the Tuileries on  August. In
this way, by depicting the people as a coherent and unified subjectivity,
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
Robespierre effectively turned the allegations of factionalism back upon
Louvet himself.
In Robespierre’s eyes, the September massacres were produced by the
people’s impatience for justice; thus they could be regretted but not con-
demned. In response to the suggestion that many innocent people had
perished, he insisted that most of the victims were aristocrats complicit
with the counter-revolutionary army pressing upon the borders of
France. Once again he accused Louvet of being selective in his sympa-
thies, of taking up the cause of aristocrats and conspirators rather than
lamenting the demise of French soldiers fighting in the revolutionary
war. Most spectacularly of all, he responded to Louvet’s charge that the
executions had been ‘illegal’ by suggesting that he had completely failed
to understand the nature of revolutionary action. Adeptly deploying
Rousseau’s notion of the general will as a sovereign principle superior to
all positive institutions and laws he declared that the massacres had only
been as illegal as the rest of the Revolution, ‘as the fall of the throne and
of the Bastille, as illegal as liberty itself ’.4 On matters such as this, he felt
there was no room for hypocrisy: ‘Citoyens,’ he demanded, addressing
the members of the Convention directly, ‘do you want a revolution
without a revolution?’.5
Thus it was that by dealing sympathetically with the motives and
desires of the septembriseurs, and binding himself rhetorically to the cause
of the people, Robespierre was able to vindicate himself in the eyes of
the majority of his colleagues in the National Convention. And at the
same time, he was able to imply that Louvet and his supporters were
hopelessly detached from the true springs of revolutionary action, mis-
understanding its true meaning. For in refusing to denounce his antago-
nist, he made it seem that Louvet was narrowly preoccupied with the
actions of individuals, while he himself was capable of rising above such
limited concerns:
I have given up the easy advantage to be gained by replying to the calumnies of
my adversaries with more dreadful denunciations. I have sought to suppress the
offensive part of my defence. I have refused the just vengeance that I should
have had the right to pursue against such libellers. I demand nothing more than
the return of peace and the triumph of liberty. Citizens, continue to follow, with
a firm and rapid step, your splendid path, and, though it may cost me my life
and even my reputation, may I work together with you for the greater glory and
happiness of our common fatherland!6
Characteristically, Robespierre’s very claim to public virtue was based
on a kind of refusal, a withdrawal, a retreat into a position of sublime
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
detachment, somewhere outside of the realm of factional politics. And
this capacity to play the grand legislator, it might be said, was one of the
foremost reasons for his revolutionary longevity, for in assuming this rôle,
he sometimes made it seem as if he alone was capable of commanding
a general prospect of the Revolution, as if he alone could trace its true
trajectory, and as if he alone had completely identified his interests with
those of the people.7
In the eyes of his political enemies this detachment from the blood
and strife of the main revolutionary struggles was indicative of a suspi-
cious and cowardly nature. For his supporters, however, it bespoke an
enabling detachment, a perspective which allowed him to see the
Revolution with far greater clarity, and with a sympathy that was all the
more pure. Within the pages of the Contrat Social Rousseau had spoken
at length of the qualities requisite in the ideal revolutionary legislator,
but he had also depicted him as an outsider from the community in ques-
tion, whose very foreignness would enable him to maintain a certain dis-
interestedness of spirit. Without fulfilling that requirement, Robespierre
nevertheless assumed a demeanour which was at once enthusiastic and
austere, so that he came to be seen as ‘a man of the people’, after the
fashion of some of the old Roman tribunes, rather than as a ‘populist’
like Hébert or Marat. Thus it was not by affecting the style and manners
of the sans-culottes, but by endlessly emphasising the transparent reci-
procity between his individual will and that of the people, that
Robespierre defined his political character. And by this means he turned
revolutionary politics into a species of autobiography.
Many contemporary commentators saw the confessional vein in
Robespierre’s politics, his willingness to parade his political conscience
in public, as a confirmation of his overweening personal ambition. In
the eyes of John Adolphus, for example, his reply to Louvet was not so
much a defence as ‘an eulogium on himself ’. And as the years passed,
this perception of Robespierre as a man consumed by inordinate self-
love was to gain a good deal of authority on both sides of the Channel,
so that when Sir Walter Scott finally came to pen his account of the
French Revolution in the late s, it had already become something of
a truism: ‘Vanity was Robespierre’s ruling passion,’ Scott wrote, ‘and
though his countenance was the image of his mind, he was vain even of
his personal appearance, and never adopted the external habits of a
Sans-Culotte.’8 But whatever Robespierre’s concern for his reputation and
demeanour, it is not necessary to assume that his self-absorption was
indicative of a desire for dictatorship. He himself maintained that what-
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
ever influence he possessed in the National Convention was due not to
personal power but to ‘the natural empire of principles’.9 And in recent
years François Furet has seen fit to concur with this view, arguing that
his pre-eminence stemmed from his constant willingness to explain the
significance of the central events of the Revolution and his ability to
embody more fully and more continuously than any of his contempo-
raries its fundamental values.10 But if this was indeed the case, how then
did his autobiographical impulse function as an expression of his revolu-
tionary principles? What, in short, was the relation between politics and
personality in the writings and speeches of Robespierre?
For many members of the revolutionary generation the experience of
being converted to the principles of liberty and equality was intimately
linked to, and coeval with, a revolution in their concept of personal iden-
tity. In the case of many revolutionary republicans, figures such as
Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Marie-Jeanne Roland and even Louvet himself,
their concept of the self and its relation to society had been completely
transformed by a reading of Rousseau.11 But it is in the political writings
of Robespierre that we find the fullest, most dramatic and most com-
pletely self-conscious articulation of this phenomenon. In the Dédicace
aux mânes de Jean-Jacques Rousseau penned shortly before arriving in
Versailles in  as a representative of the newly summoned Estates
General, he singled out Les Confessions for special praise. Other radical
writers and pamphleteers of the period had tended to extol the wisdom
and virtue of novels and treatises such as Emile and La Nouvelle Heloïse,
but for Robespierre, it was Rousseau’s most recent and controversial
work that deserved the highest praise.12
Your example is there before my eyes; your admirable confessions, that open
and courageous emanation of the purest soul, which shall go forward into pos-
terity less as a model of art than as a prodigy of virtue. I want to follow your
venerable path, though I may leave nothing but a name of which centuries to
come shall be wholly incurious. I shall be happy if, in the perilous course that
an unprecedented revolution has just opened up before us, I remain constantly
faithful to the inspiration that I have drawn from your writings!13
Why was Robespierre disposed to see the Confessions – that most
apparently private and perverse of texts – as a prodigy of public virtue?
And to what extent did it become a model for his own ‘confessional’
style? In the first chapter of this book I examined how Rousseau’s theo-
retical critique of the liberal bourgeois Enlightenment insinuated itself
into the political practice of revolutionary Jacobinism. Developing this
argument, I now want to suggest that an exploration of the relationship
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
between Rousseau’s autobiographical writings and his works of political
theory can help to deepen our understanding of revolutionary republi-
canism, allowing us to see the close connection between Robespierre’s
discourse of confession and the ‘illegality’ of revolutionary justice;
between the language of conscience and the politics of Terror.


In the celebrated Discours sur l’Inégalité of , Rousseau depicted man
in the state of nature as a creature of self-respect (amour de soi ) and
natural compassion (pitié ), arguing that the invention of private property
and the development of civil society had instituted conditions of eco-
nomic inequality and mutual dependence which had served to alienate
him from this state of primordial bliss. As social conditions began to
reshape man’s sense of himself, his behaviour became oriented towards
competing jealously with his fellow men, desiring to please his superiors
and offering himself as something he was not. Selfishness (amour-propre)
began to replace self-respect. And with this loss of integrity came a con-
sequent loss of mutual transparency: men began to live externally rather
than according to their own internal standard, and this externality was
itself the play of mere appearance. This was a development of the argu-
ment which had first appeared in the Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts of
, in which Rousseau had argued that as civilisation became ever
more sophisticated and cultivated, men became progressively more
opaque to one other:
Human nature was not at bottom better then than now; but men found their
security in the ease with which they could fathom one another, and this advan-
tage, of which we no longer feel the value, prevented their having many vices.14
Though it may appear that the members of modern society commu-
nicate more elegantly and more intelligently than ever before, Rousseau
argues, they actually understand each other less, for by insisting upon a
propriety that is proper to nobody, civilised discourse has driven a wedge
between public and private experience, serving to obscure people from
one another in the process.15 And the importunate fantasies and impos-
tures fostered by modern trade and commerce represented the final
stage in the process of alienation in this respect, for they served to
dramatise the final transformation of l’homme into le bourgeois.
According to liberal reformists of the revolutionary period such as
Antoine de Condorcet and Thomas Paine, the modern subject was
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
never more free than when he was permitted to follow his own personal
interests, secure from interference by the state. And throughout the
eighteenth century a number of philosophers, most notably David
Hume, had sought to argue the suitability of modern commercial
society to the intellectual and emotional fabric of the individual self by
depicting man as an animal naturally driven by fantastic desires and irra-
tional speculations and hence fundamentally incapable of living accord-
ing to the absolute demands of reason.16 For Rousseau, however,
modern commercial man was distinctly inferior to the ancient citizens
of Rome or Sparta, in whom liberty had been defined in terms of public
virtue rather than private feeling. As we saw in chapter one, in the Contrat
Social () he had tried to develop an alternative to the conditions
of economic dependence and social bondage that characterised
eighteenth-century society. And he did this by describing a different kind
of alienation from that which had taken place in modern times, one in
which l’homme would be transformed into le citoyen, renouncing his natural
independence in order to receive it back on a political basis, for in iden-
tifying his particular will with that of the general, Rousseau argued, the
individual would be able to preserve his moral liberty by pledging alle-
giance to a law that was entirely of his own making.
One way of trying to understand the nature and effect of the changes
brought about by the rise of trade and commerce during the eighteenth
century was to construct narratives of the historical development of civil
society, and it is in this light that we can understand the work of figures
such as Adam Ferguson, Edward Gibbon and Lord Kames, and, of
course, Rousseau himself. Another approach, intimately connected with
the first, although often occupying an entirely different generic and liter-
ary register – that of novels and memoirs rather than formal histories –
was to examine these questions through a close analysis of the develop-
ment of the individual self. And it is in these terms that we may be able
to understand the rise of life-writing in the early eighteenth century.
In his book on the origins of the English novel, Michael McKeon has
discussed the way in which seventeenth-century novels written in the first
person tended to blend elements of two very different genres of writing
about the self inherited from former times, namely the ‘spiritual auto-
biography’ and the ‘true history’. He has described how the confessional
models found in St Augustine and the Lives of the Saints gradually
became democratised during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in
the work of men such as John Bunyan and John Foxe. In this form of
writing a dialectic was set up between the authorial self and the autobio-
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
graphical subject, in which detailed reflection on past folly helped to
define the nature of present grace. ‘True histories’, by contrast, were
often tales of travel and adventure without such a rigid before-and-after
structure. Digressive and desultory in character, they engaged much
more with the empirical life of the subject, eschewing the drama of
moral regeneration in favour of a series of picturesque descriptions and
informative anecdotes. In Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe () we can
see both of these generic models struggling for dominance. Written in
the form of a fictional autobiography, this novel is both a conversion nar-
rative and a true history, constantly pulling its hero in two directions, ver-
tically, into a contemplation of his spiritual trajectory, and horizontally,
into new adventures and commercial speculations without form, shape
or end.17
In many ways, Rousseau’s Confessions, which were published post-
humously, in two parts, in  and  respectively, can be seen to have
constituted a radical inflection of the tradition of spiritual auto-
biography. It redefined the traditional narrative of sin and salvation in
entirely secular terms, describing the struggles of the self to combat the
accretions of modern corruption. Within its pages, the citizen of
Geneva engaged in a dialogue with his former self, the ingenuous Jean-
Jacques, and in so doing attempted to heal the breach that bourgeois
society had caused between them. By obsessively analysing, explaining
and excusing the various forms of alienation that had been suffered by
his youthful self, Rousseau tried to identify himself with the being in his
past, re-establishing and re-confirming through the act of writing a
notion of the self that was independent of history and its endless trans-
formations.18 His autobiography developed into an extended analysis of
the way in which the fetters, obstacles and patterns of dependence that
characterise modern life serve to alienate and corrupt the natural man,
forcing him to live externally, at one remove from self-possession and
independent virtue. In this way the Confessions offered another version of
the narrative of natural goodness corrupted by civil society that had
been developed in the Discours sur l’inégalité. But whereas the latter had
been abstract and theoretical, the former was engagingly personal, con-
taining a series of vivid and often amusing anecdotes touching upon all
aspects of eighteenth-century culture. True to the traditions of spiritual
autobiography, however, Rousseau combined an understanding of the
way in which social circumstances constructed and constricted human
behaviour with a belief in the possibility that individuals and even whole
societies might be able to cast off the trappings of their recent past and
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
rediscover their former virtue entirely through an effort of will. And as
we shall see, this notion of autobiography as a conscious denial of
history was to have an important influence upon the Romantic genera-
tion.
In the opening books of the Confessions, Rousseau re-interpreted the
seminal moments of his childhood in the light of the philosophical dis-
coveries of his later life. In Book I, for example, the discussion of the
relation between being and seeming that had appeared in the second
Discours was reworked in terms of the traumatic personal experience of
being accused of stealing a comb. Although he is absolutely guiltless of
Madame Lambercier’s charge, the young Jean-Jacques is horrified to
realise the extent to which appearances testify against him. He and his
cousin are devastated by the gap between their internal innocence and
the external show, and this experience destroys the paradisal trans-
parency which had characterised their life until that point:
We were there, as the first man is represented to us – still in our earthly paradise,
but having ceased to enjoy it; in appearance our condition was the same, in
reality it was a totally different manner of existence. Attachment, respect, inti-
macy and confidence no longer drew the pupils to their guides: we no longer
regarded them as gods who were able to read into our hearts; we became less
ashamed of doing wrong and more afraid of being accused; we began to dis-
semble, to be insubordinate, to lie.19
Learning that appearances can deceive leads Jean-Jacques and his
cousin to learn to become deceptive. They come to the realisation that
if they are to be punished for crimes they did not commit, they may as
well commit them, especially as crime, if it remains undiscovered, seems
to be no crime at all. In this way they seek to master their grief though
repetition. And it is through a series of alienations and revolutions of this
sort, Rousseau seems to suggest, that the natural man gradually becomes
conversant with the mendacious nature of social reality. Apprenticed to
a tyrant of an engraver in Geneva later in book  Jean-Jacques is forced
into theft and deceit, and this gives Rousseau the opportunity to reflect
upon the way in which despotism breeds a pact of complicity between
master and slave, property owner and thief: ‘I found that stealing and a
flogging went together, and constituted a sort of bargain, and that, if I
performed my part, I could safely leave my master to carry out his
own.’20 Built into the tyrannical behaviour of the master is an expecta-
tion and encouragement of the rebellion of the slave; that is how indi-
viduals communicate with one another in the realm of opacity.
During the course of ten years Rousseau deposited all five of the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
children borne him by Thérèse Levasseur at the Enfants Trouvés in
Paris. He returned to this episode on a number of occasions both in the
Confessions and its sequel the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire ostensibly in
order to repent but finally in order to justify his conduct. In book  of
the Confessions he declared that he was persuaded by his friends in
Commandeur de Graville’s rakish circle that giving his children away
was the right thing for him to do. In book , however, he was to provide
a different excuse, asking us to believe that giving his children up to the
state was an act of public virtue. Since he had always felt himself to be
inspired by an ‘innate benevolence’ for his fellows, and an ‘ardent love’
for the grand, the true, the beautiful and the just, Rousseau found it
impossible to believe that he could have been deliberately wicked. So
when he considered the malicious breach of faith on the subject of his
children that was perpetrated by his former friends Madame D’Épinay,
Denis Diderot and Melchior Grimm, he immediately swung from
defence into attack:
My fault is great, but it was due to error; I have neglected my duties, but the
desire of doing an injury never entered my heart . . . but, to betray the
confidence of friendship, to violate the most sacred of all agreements, to dis-
close secrets poured into our bosoms, deliberately to dishonour the friend whom
one has deceived, these are not faults, they are acts of meanness and infamy.21
In this way, Rousseauvian confession is always in danger of trans-
forming itself into a form of self-justification: ‘never, for a single moment
in his life, could Jean-Jacques have been a man without feeling, without
compassion, or an unnatural father’, he declares, before adding that:
I shall content myself with saying that such was [my error] that, in delivering
my children into the hands of public education because I could not bring them
up myself, in intending them to become peasants and workers rather than
adventurers and fortune-seekers, I believed myself to be acting both as a citizen
and a true father, and looked upon myself as a member of Plato’s republic.22
Throughout the Confessions Rousseau is continually suggesting that
modern society transforms his every good feeling into its opposite, by
forging a radical separation between his intentions and their conse-
quences. He even goes on to suggest that it is in the nature of truly virtu-
ous impulses that they should be subject to an uncanny distortion as soon
as they enter the corrupt world outside, that is why his own behaviour
has been so consistently misconstrued.23 In this way he implies that
within the confines of an unjust social order it is the fate of public virtue
to become inexpressibly private, so that it can only be signified in terms
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
of an absence: thus the best way of exercising one’s freedom in con-
temporary society, he finally concludes, is to have the courage to do
nothing.
Other episodes of Rousseau’s Confessions dramatised different aspects
of his political theory. In book  an extended reflection on the relation-
ship between theft and monetary purchase developed the arguments of
the second Discours on the corrupting power of a commercial appetite.
Rousseau described himself as a man fuelled by natural desires for the
assuagement of hunger and for human contact and affection, desires
that money cannot satisfy because it always poisons all pleasure. One
never gets one’s money’s worth, in his analysis, because of the role of
money in the exchange relationship which is always draining every
transaction of value. As well as obstructing communication between
men, it also represents an obstacle between the individual and the object
of his desire: ‘Money tempts me less than things, because between
money and the possession of the desired object there is always an inter-
mediary, whereas between the thing itself and the enjoyment of it there
is none.’24 Paradoxically, for Rousseau theft is more virtuous than the
accumulation of monetary wealth because it arises from a spontaneous
and unmediated desire for the object.
In book  of the Confessions, Rousseau describes how while a footman
in the house of the Comtesse de Vercellis, the young Jean-Jacques had
publicly attributed to his fellow servant Marion the theft of a ribbon that
he himself had stolen. And he excuses his behaviour by referring to the
fundamental goodness of his conscience: ‘Wicked intent was never
further from me than at that cruel moment’, he declared, ‘and when I
accused this unfortunate girl, it is bizarre but true that my affection for
her was the cause.’25 He then trawls through his guilty feelings about his
ill-treatment of Marion, aware that his besmirching of her character
must have had a devastating effect on her prospects for future employ-
ment, but ultimately he is able to console himself by retreating into the
inner world of his intentions, a world in which he is autonomous and
self-possessed, and no longer perturbed by the calculation of external
consequences. And indeed, throughout the Confessions, however much
Rousseau berates Jean-Jacques for being periodically seduced by bour-
geois desires and appetites, he always concludes each confessional
episode by stripping away the accumulated layers of acculturation to dis-
cover a pure will in his former self that continues to exist anterior to all
action and beyond all representation. Neither a public person, nor an
aristocrat, he shows himself struggling to attain independent virtue
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
while simultaneously being mired in the occlusions, jealousies and
instabilities of civil society. In this way the Confessions gives a private and
particular version of the civic humanist critique of modern society con-
tained in the second Discourse, reformulating the narrative of the
development of civil society in terms of the individual trajectory of a
man of the Third Estate.
Although it was initially well received, the Confessions was soon seen by
many as an utterly scandalous text. Rousseau’s detractors, of whom
there were many, especially in England, were outraged at the personal
weaknesses that his confessional discourse had shamelessly exposed.26
How was it possible, they asked, that a man who admitted to having lied,
cheated, thieved, whored and masturbated throughout his life could still
wish to be considered as good? How could a man who had left his five
children at the Foundling Hospital in Paris still profess to be virtuous?
During the s attacks on the Confessions became especially intense.
Feverishly fuelled by the knowledge that the French Revolutionaries had
set Rousseau up as their ‘canon of holy writ’, Edmund Burke was to
embark upon a vitriolic ad hominem attack in his Letter to a Member of the
National Assembly of , in which he sought to expose the latter’s
concept of pitié or natural fellow-feeling as an entirely theoretical form
of benevolence that masked a practical malignity: ‘Benevolence to the
whole species and want of feeling for every individual with whom the
professors come in contact’, he wrote, ‘form the character of the new
philosophy.’27
In Burke’s view, the merest acquaintance with Rousseau’s ‘mad
confession of his mad faults’ made abundantly clear the extent to which
vanity had been the ruling passion of his life, both theoretically and
practically. Firstly, it was the very foundation of his philosophical system,
the defining element of which was nothing but an elaborate defence of
individual selfishness against the claims of deference and duty. And sec-
ondly, it had been the central characteristic of his literary career, so that
everything from his peculiar predilection for dressing in Armenian
costume to his celebrated passion for paradoxes could finally be traced
back to an overwhelming desire in him, so intense as to be almost a
species of madness, to grab the attention of the public. Thus it was
highly fortunate, Burke argued, given the specious attractions of
Rousseau’s famously seductive prose, that the British reading public had
been wise enough to resist his destructive theories, having a native mis-
trust of such ‘paradoxical morality’.
Nor was Burke alone in seeking to assassinate Rousseau’s character.
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
As the Revolution debate grew more heated, a number of loyalist
pamphleteers were to follow his example, using the Confessions as a rough
and ready means of criticising the general tendency of French
Jacobinism as a whole. For example, in Charles Harrington Elliot’s The
Republican Refuted, which was published in , the author sought to
prove the anarchistic nature of revolutionary politics by referring his
readers to the unconventional, itinerant life of the young Rousseau. And
what is more, he endeavoured to sully the reputation of the most cele-
brated English republican of the day, Tom Paine, by tarring him with
the same biographical brush: ‘That once generous and gallant nation’,
Elliot wrote,
unhappily sophisticated by the late-forged philosophy of ingenious, immoral
vagabonds, such as Rousseau and Paine, as devoid of principles as of property,
assumed the impenetrable breastplate of republicanism; smiled at the expiring
convulsions of slaughtered innocence; and by unprecedented refinements in
their new spectacles of human butchery, far outcrimsoned even the bloody
treachery of Launay.28
For the defenders of Jean-Jacques, however, who included figures as
diverse as Maximilien Robespierre, Madame de Staël, Mary
Wollstonecraft and William Hazlitt, Rousseau’s character was to be con-
sidered primarily in terms of his good intentions rather than the curious
errors of his life. Rarely choosing to defend his individual actions, enthu-
siasts nevertheless continued to speak of his ‘virtue’, since for them it was
not what Rousseau had done that was important, what was more
significant was the fact that through all of his actions he had managed
to remain morally independent and fundamentally benevolent, evading
the traps and pitfalls of a society that was forever conspiring to corrupt
him either with cruelty or with kindness. As Germaine de Staël most
warmly expressed it:
Ah! Rousseau! defender of the weak, friend of the unfortunate, passionate lover
of virtue, who has sketched all the movements of the soul, and sympathised with
every form of misfortune, how worthy you are in your turn of that sentiment of
compassion which your heart knew so well how to feel and express; may a voice
worthy of you rise to defend you!29
According to this interpretation, such things as Rousseau’s petty thefts
were to be interpreted in terms of the revolt of the natural man against
social oppression, and his lack of property to be regarded as an absolute
badge of distinction. Sometimes radicals sought to shift attention from
Rousseau’s personality back to his works, but even then, quite often, they
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
used the enthusiastic nature of his character as a proof of his philosoph-
ical veracity. Thus in his Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke of 
the leading radical Capel Lloft was to take issue with the charge that
vanity had been Rousseau’s defining characteristic. Far from simply
emerging out of a desire for notoriety, Lloft argued, Rousseau’s so-called
‘paradoxes’ were the inevitable consequence of a serious attempt to
break new ground in the field of political theory. Thus it was not sur-
prising that they had taken people aback. And for this very reason, he
continued, it was of great importance that his political theories should
be treated as theories, and not thoughtlessly criticised for their lack of
specificity. Rousseau himself had warned against the indiscriminate
application of general principles; indeed he himself had seen the need,
especially in relation to politics, for legislators to be sensitive to particu-
lar circumstances. Nor had he intended his blueprints for republican
government to be imposed insensitively and without modification. But
above and beyond his defence of Rousseau’s legacy to politics, and the
allowance it made for local conditions, the mainstay of Lloft’s defence
lay in his enthusiastic account of the effect of Rousseau’s character. For
in a long footnote to his discussion of the Contrat Social, he suggested that
the only way to make good Rousseau’s paradoxes was to partake of the
same enthusiasm which had brought them into being:
. . . But if the heart does not tell the reader of Rousseau that paradoxes like his
flow from the warmth and force of the heart and are not studied sophisms
invented at leisure and elaborately wrought in contradiction to the sentiment of
their author – or at least without the vivid concurrence of that sentiment – that
the world might admire him as a surprising inventor of strange things, – if the
heart of the reader does not feel which of these suppositions must be the truth,
the person will not be convinced by any arguments: he wants the faculty to
which the proof must apply.30
In this passage, Lloft plays upon the double meaning of the word
paradox, as referring to both a kind of logical impasse, and a new kind of
truth, by suggesting that in order for the former to be transformed into
the latter, there was required a kind of secular leap of faith, which would
help heal whatever contradiction a paradox might be seen to contain,
while also making one aware that its apparent illogicality should simply
be seen as the result of an antiquated conception of things. What is
interesting about formulations like this, of course, is that they allow us
to see the tendency of revolutionary enthusiasm to become self-justify-
ing. Without enthusiasm on the part of the reader, Lloft seems to suggest,
Rousseau’s paradoxes are bound to seem contrived. Thus in order to
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
gain anything from a reading of his work, it is necessary to bring to them
the very same spirit of enthusiasm that they themselves were designed
to teach. It is, to say the least, a rather circular, self-confirming argument.
Precisely because it contained such a direct and powerful appeal to
the notion of sensibility, it was often very tempting for radicals to invoke
the principle of revolutionary enthusiasm in this way. In that sense, Lloft
was by no means unusual. But it should also be recognised that it was
especially tempting to do so when discussing Rousseau, because Jean-
Jacques himself had done so much to encourage this kind of approach,
with the Confessions serving as a kind of posthumous proof of the sincer-
ity of the Contrat Social, as well as a potent political force in its own right.
In this way Rousseauvian autobiography can be seen to have contrib-
uted to the formation of a radical sensibility in two distinct but related
ways: firstly, by politicising the language of sentimental reciprocity,
raising private ‘sensibility’ to the level of public ‘enthusiasm’; and sec-
ondly by encouraging its readers to take an active and self-reflexive inter-
est in the details of its author’s life. For in suggesting that only the truly
virtuous would understand Jean-Jacques’s behaviour, Rousseau had
effectively challenged his readers to bring their own lives to bear upon
the reading experience, as a kind of parallel text, inviting them to
examine their own consciences before deciding to condemn him. So
much so, indeed, that in many of the radical reviews of Rousseau this
sense of the barrier between writer and reader having been broken
down is often quite explicit. For example, in the course of an anonymous
review of the second part of the Confessions for the radical Analytical
Review, Mary Wollstonecraft was moved to chafe against the formality of
her situation in these striking terms:
. . . without screening himself behind the pronoun WE, the reviewer’s phalanx,
the writer of this article will venture to say, that he should never expect to see
that man to do a generous action who could ridicule Rousseau’s interesting
account of his feelings and rêveries – who could, in all the pride of wisdom
despise such a heart when naked before him.31
In this way Rousseau made a significant contribution to the literary
culture of the late eighteenth century, both in England and in France,
by actively encouraging his readers to come out from behind the
‘phalanx’ of critical detachment and situate themselves in the open field
of republican transparency.32
As we saw in chapter one, at a number of points in the Contrat Social
Rousseau had insinuated that the inability of the modern reader to
imagine the conditions under which the people of a particular nation
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
might be able to assemble together and form a republic was to be seen
as an index of his alienation. And in the Confessions he used the same
rhetorical strategy in reverse when he made the tacit suggestion that to
repeat the judgments of contemporary society upon the character of
Jean-Jacques was simply another way of discovering one’s own corrup-
tion. Thus his autobiography constituted an extremely manipulative and
playful reworking of his own political theory, for it proposed that in order
for French society to be regenerated, the general will would have to redis-
cover itself by identifying with the individual, rather than the other way
round. Thus it was that, on the eve of the French Revolution, as J. G. A.
Pocock has suggested, by ‘paranoically proclaiming that the tensions
between personality and society did have apocalyptic possibilities, [and]
that the apocalypse had arrived in his own person’ Rousseau was able to
offer an extremely idiosyncratic inflection of the civic humanist tradi-
tion.33
Even in the postumous Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (), in which
Rousseau had sought to dramatise his renunciation of worldly concerns
like literature and politics, there had been a continuing political reso-
nance in his discourse of self-martyrdom, as he sought to excuse his
withdrawal into solitary isolation by arguing that it had been forced
upon him by the persecutions of his enemies.
Everything external is henceforth foreign to me. I no longer have any neigh-
bours, fellow-men or brothers in this world. To me the earth is like a strange
planet I have fallen into.34

After despotism had deprived him of his rightful home, he said, the
very remorselessness of oppression from without had helped him to dis-
cover spiritual consolation from within, affording him the private state
of rêverie as a replacement for the public state of Geneva. In this way
his private contemplations, for all their apparent unconcern with the
world of politics, can still be seen to identify themselves as ways of
rethinking the public. ‘This type of reverie can be enjoyed anywhere
where one is undisturbed’, he had written, in the fifth of his Promenades,
‘and I have often thought that in the Bastille, and even in a dungeon
without a single object before my eyes, I should still have been able to
dream pleasantly.’35
In this way Rousseau’s autobiographical writings had a powerful
influence upon the minds of the Revolutionary generation precisely
because they gave republican principles an unprecedented sensuous
immediacy and invited the public to reflect upon the politics of aliena-
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
tion in terms of their own personal experience. Thus it is likely that the
English radical anarchist William Godwin had Rousseau in mind when
he said of Catholic confession that it would be much better if ‘instead of
a practice thus ambiguous, and which has been made so dangerous an
engine of ecclesiastical despotism, every man would make the world his
confessional, and the human species the keeper of his conscience’.36 In
his idiosyncratic reinflection of the tradition of spiritual autobiography
Rousseau had effectively realised this ideal, founding a new, and explic-
itly republican style of writing which offered a powerful means of locat-
ing the political in the personal and the personal in the political.


In her book The Body and the French Revolution Dorinda Outram has given
a compelling account of the cult of neo-classical virtue developed by
men of the political class during the French Revolution. ‘Given the
breakdown of cultural sovereignty and the slow weakening of sover-
eignty in the political sphere’, she writes, ‘individuals were forced
increasingly into self-cultivation in order to validate their claims to
authority in public and private roles.’ In the absence of institutional and
cultural models, the ‘stoical’ tradition of antiquity was profoundly useful
to the French in that it provided a means of personifying political
authority. According to Outram, the ideal political subject was to eschew
both the anarchic activity characteristic of the Parisian sans-culottes and
the type of sentimental effusion traditionally associated with women, so
that virtue was defined in terms of an absolute self-control. Thus she
argues that the revolutionary ideal of masculinity was ‘a struggle against
sensibilité in all its forms, and in particular against the fusion of subject
and object, reaction and occasion, which was its hall-mark, and which
women, contemporaries felt, displayed in such a high degree’.37
While broadly concurring with Outram’s account of the gendering of
revolutionary identity, I would contend that it is ultimately rather unnu-
anced. A detailed analysis of the political rhetoric of the republican
period reveals that, on the contrary, the discourse of sensibility was not
repudiated by the French Jacobins, but that it was actively redeployed to
soften the aristocratic emphasis of the Plutarchan tradition of neo-
classical virtue. It is true that expressions of sensibility directed towards
individuals, factions or corporate bodies were often deemed unpatriotic
and effeminate, but sentimental effusions directed at ‘the people’ as a
whole actually fulfilled a valuable function, serving to democratise the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
discourse of civic humanism by putting the warmth of ‘natural’ feeling
in the service of public virtue. In this way the language of sympathy was
a crucial supplement to the discourse of neo-classical stoicism because
it enabled the revolutionary bourgeoisie to build a rhetorical bridge
between themselves and the sans-culottes, offering a potential solution to
the ‘problem’ of popular politics.
In the speech of  November  Robespierre attacked Louvet for
what he considered to be the latter’s excessive sympathy for the victims
of the September Massacres: ‘The sensibility which groans almost
exclusively for the enemies of liberty’, he declared, ‘is to me, highly
suspect.’38 For him there was something potentially aristocratic about
the language of sentiment when it concentrated on specific groups and
factions; it was only valid when its object was the nation. ‘Under a
monarchy’, he declared in a speech on  May , ‘it is permitted to
love one’s family but not the fatherland, it is honorable to defend one’s
friends, but not the oppressed.’39 Thus in his defence of the September
Massacres he argued that it was necessary for the representatives of the
French Republic to seek to channel individual effusions of feeling into a
broader current of general benevolence:
We are assured that innocents have perished, the number may have been
exaggerated, but even one is undoubtedly too much. Citizens, weep over this
real loss. We have wept over it before. He was a good citizen, someone may say;
if so, then he was one of our friends. Weep too for the guilty victims, hidden
from the vengeance of the law, who finally fell under the sword of popular
justice; but let your sorrow have its season, like all human things. Let us reserve
some tears for more touching calamities. Let us weep for the hundred thousand
patriots killed by tyranny, weep for fellow citizens dying in their burning houses,
and for the sons of citizens massacred in their cradles, or in the arms of their
mothers. Have you no brothers, children, spouses to avenge also? For French
legislators such as yourselves, your family is the fatherland, it is the entire human
race, except tyrants and their accomplices.40

As we saw in chapter one, the Constitution of  had been a source


of profound disappointment to the Parisian sans-culottes. Unexpectedly
limited in its franchise, it was one of a series of government measures
that served to undermine popular faith in the notion of salvation
through legislation. In times of economic or political emergency, as in
September , the sectionnaires became so impatient with what they
perceived to be the impotence of institutions that they decided to take
the administraton of justice into their own hands. As Mary
Wollstonecraft expressed it: ‘the only excuse that can be made for the
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
ferocity of the Parisians is then simply to observe, that they had not any
confidence in the laws, which they had always found to be cobwebs to
catch small flies’.41 What endeared Robespierre to the sans-culotte leaders
during these times of insurrection was precisely the fact that his sympa-
thy for the popular cause went beyond the bounds of legality. As Hannah
Arendt has suggested ‘of the men of the Revolution only those survived
and rose to power who became the spokesmen [of the masses] and sur-
rendered the artificial, man-made laws of a not yet constituted body
politic to the “natural” laws which the masses obeyed’.42
The reciprocity of the authorial voice and autobiographical subject
in Rousseau’s Confessions provided a valuable model for Robespierre in
his dealings with the people. While seeking to give a retrospective coher-
ence to the chaotic behaviour of Jean-Jacques, Rousseau had also sought
to maintain that the virtue of the latter lay precisely in the fact that he
was ‘without guile, without skill, without cunning and without prudence,
frank, open, impatient and impulsive’.43 And in his response to Louvet,
Robespierre mounted a similar double defence of the sans-culottes, justi-
fying their actions as one would justify the actions of children, while at
the same time arguing that it was precisely the spontaneous and
unreflective quality of those actions that was an absolute guarantee of
their virtue. He saw that, like the thefts of the youthful Jean-Jacques, the
raiding of grocery shops by the people of Paris during the economic
crisis of – represented a virtuous attempt to bypass the fantasy
world of paper money and commercial speculation and engage in a
more direct relation with the means of subsistence. As we shall see,
Rousseau’s notion of the ‘conscience’ as selfishness pushed to the point
of benevolence was profoundly useful here, for it provided Robespierre
with a means of linking his own personal feelings with the unpredictable
energies of the French people. Thus it was that Robespierre was fre-
quently keen to celebrate what he called ‘the pure egotism of uncor-
rupted men who find a celestial pleasure in the serenity of a pure
conscience and in the ravishing spectacle of the public good’.44
As we saw in chapter , despite their fondness for the rhetoric of
popular soveriegnty, the Jacobins were ultimately no more willing to
accede to the final demands of the sans-culottes than their Girondin pre-
decessors. As since they could not agree to working-class proposals for
the wholescale redistribution of food and land, they had to find a way of
curtailing the power of the Paris sections without being seen to oppose
them. Indeed the Terror of – can be seen as an attempt by the
committees of the National Convention to establish a monopoly on
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
revolutionary violence, to take it out of the hands of the enragés and sep-
tembriseurs and subject it to institutional control. It could also be inter-
preted as a desperate endeavour to heal the gap between revolutionary
action and political reflection, to bring the destructive and regenerative
impulse of the Revolution under the aegis of the state. Thus from the
spring and summer of , right up until his execution on  July ,
Robespierre’s response to the spectacle of continuing popular unrest
and increasing policy division among the political class of the French
bourgeoisie was to seek to transform the Revolution into a war of virtue
against corruption. To his mind, the continued absence of a unified
general will suggested that counter-revolutionary sentiments must be
more invisibly and deeply pervasive than anyone had previously sus-
pected. In response to this, he considered that it was necessary to mobil-
ise the machinery of the state in the war against treason, so that by 
he was proposing a system of political terror that would enable the
people to look deep into the hearts and minds of its enemies and bring
them to summary justice. In this way Robespierre was to transform
the politics of conscience from a rhetorical style into an institutional
practice.


In  the busts of Claude Helvétius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had
been displayed alongside one another in the hall of the Jacobin club, an
acknowledgement of the extent to which their writings had helped to
provide the philosophical foundation of revolutionary politics. But on 
December  Robespierre demanded that the bust of Helvétius be
removed from its position of honour. As we noted in chapter , during
the course of the Revolution he had become increasingly mistrustful of
the current of ‘progressive’ thought represented by Helvétius, and ever
more anxious to differentiate it from the ‘primitivist’ tradition with
which it was so often confused. He found the philosophical rationalism
of the leading philosophes and physiocrats profoundly incompatible with
Rousseau’s voluntarist ideal. And rightly or wrongly, he identified the
Girondins with this rationalist tradition, regularly accusing their intel-
lectual mentor, the mathematician Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet, of
peddling a ‘treacherous hotchpotch of mercenary rhapsodies’ that had
hindered the dissemination of true knowledge.45 In this context, a brief
look at the epistemology of ethics developed by Helvétius and his follow-
ers can help to give us a deeper understanding of Rousseau’s philosophy
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
of conscience, by highlighting the moral utilitarianism that it sought to
negate. And this, in turn, will allow us to develop a clearer sense of the
paradoxical impulse that lay behind Robespierre’s Terror, what we
might think of as its doomed attempt to legalise the ‘illegal’ spirit of the
French Revolution.
Claude Helvétius’ De l’esprit (), which had grown out of the
Cartestian rationalism of the seventeenth and early eighteenth cen-
turies, was one of the ground-breaking texts in the history of utilitarian
philosophy. During the course of this treatise, Helvétius suggested that
in the sphere of practical ethics it was impossible to fathom the inten-
tions of an individual, and that therefore one could only judge morality
from actions and their consequences. According to this view of things,
human intentions were always selfish on one level or another, for man
was naturally a hedonistic animal, driven solely by the anticipation of
pleasure or pain. Even individual probity, according to Helvétius, was
nothing more than self-interest. And so man was not suited to living
according to abstract standards of morality: ‘It is as impossible to
love virtue for the sake of virtue as to love vice for the sake of vice.’46
But rather than deplore this state of affairs, he suggested that one
should accept it as the foundation upon which to build a system of social
legislation:
The continual declamations of moralists against the malignity of mankind are
a proof of their knowing but little of human nature. Men are not cruel and
perfidious, but carried away by their own interest. The cries of moral philoso-
phers will certainly not change this mainspring of the moral universe.47

It was ultimately the task of the legislator, Helvétius argued, to


harmonise each private interest with that of the nation, and to ensure
that individual actions tended towards the public welfare, for it was in
this way alone that good laws would form virtuous men. And the virtu-
ous man, in Helvétius’s formulation, would not be someone who
sacrificed his pleasure, habits and strongest passions to the public
welfare, since it was impossible that such a man could exist; rather he
would be someone whose prevailing passions were so conformable to the
general interest, that he was almost constantly forced to be virtuous.
The model developed by Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the
Principles of Morals and Legislation of , is perhaps one of the best
examples of this ‘philosophical radicalism’ in its most extreme form.48
Written while Bentham was being employed as constitutional adviser to
Mirabeau and the Abbé Sieyès, it constituted a complete theory of
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
liberal government organised around the Helvétian notion of utility.
The purpose of laws, in this version of things, was to organise the pursuit
of private interests into a system that maximised the general good, or
‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, as Bentham preferred
to describe it. These laws were not designed to inspire and enable politi-
cal commitment in the heart of the citizen but to inform the individual
of the extent to which he was subject to a felicific calculus: ‘The business
of government’, he remarked ‘is to promote the happiness of the society,
by punishing or rewarding.’49 Social actions were to be graded and
categorised according to the extent to which they contributed to, or
detracted from, the principle of social utility, and individual crimes were
to be punished according to a strict economy of deterrence. Thus there
was no intrinsic meaning to human action, in Bentham’s ideology of
legislation, it was always to be seen exclusively in extrinsic terms. Despite
being fully mired in the self-love philosophy of Helvétius and Holbach,
however, Bentham did not seek to deny the principle of individual
benevolence, he merely insisted that it lay outside the legislator’s
concern, since from his point of view the intention which prompted an
action could never be as important as its social consequences.
In The German Ideology () Karl Marx was to argue that the rise of
the utilitarian philosophy was to be seen as part of a philosophical
project on the part of the industrial bourgeoisie to naturalise and justify
the emergence of modern commercial society. The secret meaning of
the utility relation, according to Marx, was that one derived benefit for
oneself only by doing harm to someone else. ‘For [the bourgeois]’, he
remarked, ‘only one relation is valid on its own account – the relation of
exploitation.’50 Thus for him utility theory was nothing more than a
mystification of the logic of commerce–capitalism. In a society run on
utilitarian lines, Marx predicted, the value of a particular relation would
no longer be considered intrinsic to that relation, it would have to be
referred to an external standard for its final assessment. So, for example,
in economic matters, all forms of private exploitation might be justified
as indirectly contributing to the public good. And similarly, by the same
process of externalisation and objectification, the system of public
legislation governing civil society would come to form the sole repository
of moral value, leading to a radical separation between personal ethics
and the public good.
In the ‘Profession de Foi d’un Vicaire Savoyard’ from book  of Emile
(), Rousseau was to engage in a fully fledged critique of Helvetius’s
moral philosophy in terms which went some way towards anticipating
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
the later ideas of Marx. In the person of the eponymous cleric,
Rousseau described how he had laid aside traditional religion in favour
of a faith based on revealed evidence, in which God was defined as the
primal will of the universe – the creative force that brought everything
into being – and human free will as an active portion of that force, resid-
ing in the individual mind. Having sketched out his beliefs in this way,
the vicar then proceeded to launch into a critique of the sensationalism
and necessitarianism of Helvétius and Holbach, demolishing the
former’s dictum that perception was the same as judgement by arguing
that ‘to perceive is to feel, to compare is to judge’, and that therefore to
feel and to judge were not the same thing.51
As his argument developed, Rousseau was ultimately to repose upon
a notion of the ‘conscience’ as the ultimate vehicle of free will and the
vessel of moral truth. Not a judgment but a feeling, conscience was
superior to reason because it offered a spontaneous and therefore selfless
form of ethical perception.52 And yet its metaphysical status as an a priori
faculty of insight also served to render it absolutely distinct from
Helvetian ‘sensation’:
Conscience! Conscience! Divine instinct, immortal voice from heaven; sure
guide for a creature ignorant and finite indeed, yet intelligent and free; infalli-
ble judge of good and evil, making man like to God!53

Thus Rousseau argued that the pangs of the heart were the surest test
of truth or falsehood: ‘I have only to consult myself on what I want to
do,’ the savoyard vicar declared, ‘everything that I feel to be good is
good, everything that I feel to be evil is evil: the best of all casuists is the
conscience’.54 In this formulation, the conscience was an ethical princi-
ple in the human mind that transcended rational calculation, a princi-
ple that went beyond the bounds of utility to identify itself with the
absolute good. By defending the notion of a subjective moral sense, a
morale sensitive, Rousseau sought to resist Helvétius’s objectification of
social morality, to overturn his transformation of goodness into useful-
ness and to reverse his alienation of justice into law.
However, in the very force of his negation of this ‘external’ system of
ethics, Rousseau risked losing himself in his own ‘internal’ universe. And
in his autobiographical writings this tendency was sometimes especially
pronounced. For example, in the Sixth Promenade of the Rêveries du pro-
meneur solitaire he briefly imagined what it would have been like to possess
the mythical ring of Gyges, a magic ornament which was supposed to
have rendered its bearer invisible. Suddenly he found himself indulging
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
in a dream of sublime power in which it had become his prerogative to
administer justice to mankind:
Perhaps in my light-hearted moments I should have had the childish gaiety to
work miracles, but being entirely disinterested, and obeying only my natural
inclinations, I should have performed scores of merciful or equitable ones for
every act of just severity.55
In Emile, Rousseau suggested that benevolence was merely selfishness
pushed to the point of principle, an invisible will acting without fear of
contradiction, and that in order to be properly disinterested one only
had to follow one’s own inclinations, for as long as these inclinations were
unmediated by rational reflection, they would inevitably exist in
harmony with the ‘divine conscience’ which partakes of the general will
of God. But it is worth noting that in this passage from the Rêveries the
fundamental kindliness of the conscience did not preclude it from car-
rying out some acts of severe justice the moral foundation of which was
as invisible as the spatial positioning of their perpetrator. This was what
utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham found problematic about sentimental
morality. For them, it mistook the symptom of moral action for its
ground. Disclaiming the necessity of looking out for any extrinsic
ground, the conscience was not so much a principle of moral action, in
Bentham’s view, as the negation of all principle, and this was what ren-
dered it dangerously unpredictable compared with the utilitarian calcu-
lus. Sometimes foolishly indulgent, it would more often be cruel and
arbitrary, precisely because there was nothing to check it. Therefore
despite all indications to the contrary, Bentham argued, ‘the principle of
sympathy and antipathy is most apt to err on the side of severity’.56


As we saw in chapter , the French constitution-mongers of  had
seen the foundation of liberty and equality almost entirely in terms of
the declaration and preservation of rights. But in the atmosphere of
national emergency that characterised the years after , Robespierre
and his fellow Jacobins had begun to question this liberal ideology of
legislation. For them, its complex forms and procedures were increas-
ingly inappropriate to the revolutionary situation, for they obstructed
the punishment of vice and interfered with the exercise of virtue. Not
only did the law fail to acknowledge the value of ‘illegal’ actions such as
popular insurrection, it also failed to recognise that it was in the very
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
nature of political conspiracy to be incapable of proof. Thus from the
trial of the king onwards, legal proceedings in cases of political impor-
tance were increasingly conducted on the principle that the conscience
was superior to calculation, and that a strong conviction of the guilt of
the accused could overturn any evidence for the defence. At the trial of
the Girondins in the autumn of  the defendants complained that the
public prosecutors were not conducting their indictment on a properly
legal basis. However, as John Adolphus pointed out, only the previous
year Brissot had himself declared that ‘in the case of conspiracies it is
absurd to call for demonstrative facts and judicial proofs: that at no
period have they ever been obtained not even in the conspiracies of
Catiline; for conspirators are not so unguarded in their conduct. It is
sufficient that there exist strong possibilities’.57 Like so many of the
revolutionary generation, Brissot was hoist by his own petard, convicted
on a set of principles that he had helped to found, a fact which was not
lost on conservative historians such as Sir Walter Scott, who, when con-
ducting his account of the Revolution almost thirty years later, made a
point of reminding his readers of the hypocrisy of Brissot and his men:
‘it will be recorded’, he wrote, ‘to the disgrace of their pretensions to
stern republican virtue, that the Girondists were willing to employ, for
the accomplishment of their purpose, those base and guilty tools which
afterwards effected their own destruction’.58
By  it was clear to Robespierre that the people, although funda-
mentally virtuous, were profoundly susceptible to counter-revolutionary
flattery. Moroever, he increasingly came to consider that, far from being
systematically opposed to one another, the Brissotin modérés and the
popular enragés were all been part of the same – fundamentally aristo-
cratic – conspiracy to seduce them:
Brissot and the Girondins armed the rich against the people; the faction of
Hébert protected the aristocracy by flattering the people in order to oppress
them.59
And such was the extent of the counter-revolutionary conspiracy that
even the clamour of the sections could no longer be considered the
authentic voice of the people. ‘Of what importance is it that Brutus
killed the tyrant?’ Robespierre asked despondently on  February ,
‘Tyranny continues to live in all hearts, and Rome exists no longer, other
than in Brutus.’60 Aristocracy had not been eradicated by the physical
destruction of the king, it had become a metaphysical phenomenon,
everywhere at large, threatening to corrupt the minds of the people.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
It was in this climate of paranoia and persecution that the principle
of revolutionary justice was finally institutionalised by the law of the 
Prairial, which was presented to the National Convention by the
Robespierrist Georges Couthon in the summer of . This measure
dispensed with any residual commitment to the role of the defence in
criminal trials. A judiciary and jury composed of virtuous patriots, it was
suggested, if left to itself, was quite capable of penetrating the veil of
counter-revolutionary conspiracy, of bringing aristocratic darkness into
the light of transparent day:
The proof necessary to condemn the enemies of the people is, any sort of docu-
ment, whether material or moral, verbal or written, that can naturally obtain
the assent of every just and reasonable mind. The rule of judgement is the con-
science of the jurors inspired by patriotism, their goal the triumph of the repub-
lic and the ruin of its enemies; the procedure, the simple methods which good
sense indicates in order to come to an understanding of the truth in the way
that the law has set it down. The law offers patriotic juries as a defence for
libelled patriots. It accords no such defence to conspirators.61
Realising the Rousseauvian desire to substitute moral truth for the
truth of facts, the law of the  Prairial considered that the guilt or inno-
cence of the accused would be evident to the court without a defence
being necessary, for a revolutionary jury would come to the right deci-
sion merely by following its own natural inclinations.62 Even the ten-
dency to show fear was considered suspect. For as Robespierre himself
said in the immediate aftermath of Danton and Hébert’s death, anxiety
of this sort might be seen as a sign of inner corruption: ‘I say that
whoever trembles at this moment is guilty; because innocence never
fears public surveillance.’63 Primarily this was because, in his eyes, the
Terror was directed towards the fostering of liberty and virtue, and
therefore only counter-revolutionaries could wish to oppose it. Virtue-
as-sympathy for the plight of the people had been displaced into virtue-
as-terror:
If the mainspring of popular government in peace time is virtue, its resource
during a revolution is at one and the same time virtue and terror; virtue without
which terror is merely terrible; terror, without which virtue is simply power-
less.64
In an attempt to purify the Jacobin club of counter-revolutionary ele-
ments during the winter of , Merlin de Thionville had proposed that
members should render themselves transparent to the general will by
answering the following questions:
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
What were you in ? What have you done till ? What was your fortune
in ? What is it now? If your fortune has increased, how do you explain it?
What have you done for the Revolution? Have you ever signed a counter-
revolutionary petition? If you are an administrator, journalist, or representative
of the people, have you devoted your efforts only to the service of liberty?’65
Robespierre’s Terror, by contrast, was not centrally concerned with
cross-questioning suspects on the nature of empirical evidence, but with
scouring their hearts for signs of counter-revolutionary intention. It was
the inner impulse that mattered to him, not the external behaviour,
which was one of the reasons why he was to oppose the proscription of
Danton and Desmoulins for so long, despite the irregularity and impru-
dence of their political conduct.
Thus the law of the  Prairial that Robespierre and Couthon helped
to produce at the height of the Grand Terror represented a clear reac-
tion against the liberal theory of jurisprudence exemplified by the
‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’ of  and a firm
rejection of the felicific calculus that had been put forward by the
utilitarians. In sentencing its subjects to either liberty or death, the
Revolutionary Tribunal was to become a secular version of the Last
Judgement, steadfastly refusing to engage in the painstaking calculation
of crimes and punishments that absorbed Helvétius and Bentham. And
this was the historical result of Robespierre’s stated desire to create a
society in which liberty and equality would cease to exist externally in
the form of a written body of legislation, having been transformed into
a set of internal principles inscribed within the heart of each citizen:
What is the goal to which we are travelling? The peaceful enjoyment of liberty
and equality; the reign of eternal justice, the laws of which having been
engraved, not in marble or on stone, but in the hearts of men, even in those of
the slave who forgets them and the tyrant who denies them.66
What was characteristically Rousseauvian about the law of the 
Prairial was thus not merely its emphasis upon the ‘conscience’, but the
profound mistrust of language which that entailed. Just as Capel Lloft,
in attempting to defend Rousseau’s paradoxes, had sought a proof for
their veracity and sincerity outside the realm of language, a proof resid-
ing in the very principle of ‘enthusiasm’ itself, so too the judges of the
Revolutionary Tribunal were being instructed to search between the
lines of each charge of treason, for signs of a political passion which, if
present, could heal all apparent contradictions into a harmonious whole,
but whose absence could never be excused; a passion, moreover, whose
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
defining characteristic was that it was quite literally beyond representa-
tion, so that, strictly speaking, it could not be identified by ‘signs’ at all.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, for many subsequent commentators on the
French Revolution, the law of the  Prairial was nothing more than a
philosophical cloak to cover tyranny. As Germaine de Staël remarked in
:
‘The law,’ said Couthon, in proposing that of  Prairial, ‘accords patriotic
juries as a defence for the innocent, but no defence to conspirators’. Are there
not in this maxim all the the elements of well-coordinated speech? At yet has it
ever been possible to bring together in so few words so many atrocious absur-
dities? This net of language, which enslaves the most upright spirit and from
which the most powerful mind knows not how to free itself, is one of the great-
est evils of an imperfect metaphysics. Thus reason becomes the tool of stupid-
ity and crime.67
In this formulation, de Staël shows how in the law of the  Prairial
the very forms of reason and of law had been used to further an essen-
tially irrational and illegal end. And it is true that its general purpose was
to cut a path through the mechanistic system of Enlightenment ration-
ality in order to expedite the execution of revolutionary justice.
Nevertheless, what has tended to be neglected in this context, is that one
of the subsidiary aims of the Prairial law, ironically enough, was to try
and put a stop to the bloodthirsty terrorism of rabid Montagnards like
Carrier and Tallien, who had been arbitrarily condemning thousands to
the scaffold in the north-western and southern provinces of France
during – in their role as réprésentants en mission to the Committee of
Public Safety. And this was why Prairial sought to bring the administra-
tion of revolutionary justice back under central control, stipulating that
in the future all suspects would have to come to Paris to be tried. But
more than this, it could also be seen as an attempt to reinvigorate the
moral dimension of the Terror because of its suggestion that the funda-
mental question when trying suspects was always to be whether they
were good republicans at heart, and not whether they had always
behaved impeccably. One should not over-emphasise this element, of
course; fundamentally, the law was designed to make it easier to sentence
and execute suspected traitors. But behind it all there did lie an attempt
to purify the Terror by calling a halt to the petty and vindictive purges
which had been taking place all over France, and bringing the nation’s
mind back to the central question of political ‘enthusiasm’. In that sense
it constituted a Terror within the Terror, in that one of its prime objects
was to halt the excesses of the Terrorists themselves.
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
The French cultural historian Marie-Hélène Huet effectively
endorses this point when she makes a radical distinction between
Robespierre’s Terror and the popular cult of the guillotine that was
contemporaneous with it: ‘Robespierre denounced the false terrors and
played a crucial role in putting an end to Carrier’s infamous drownings
in Nantes’, she writes, before going on to argue that ‘Robespierre’s nega-
tive Terror’, was ‘precisely the reverse side of this monstrous theatrical-
ity that would endow death with a parodic ceremonial in the last two
months of the Revolution.’ In this way Huet hints that Robespierre’s leg-
islative theory of the Terror was actually an attempt to transcend its
executive practice:
Robespierre tried to define the Revolution as sublime, as an ideal that would
transcend all representation and escape all misrepresentation, as a rhetorical
purity that could only be expressed in a negative form.68

Of course, as is well known, the guillotine was an extremely recent


invention in , very much a piece of modern technology, primarily
designed to make the punishment of criminals both more efficient and
humane. Indeed, as Daniel Arasse has shown, at bottom it was the
product of an essentially rationalist project to maximise the speed and
minimise the pain of death,69 and thus a prime example of the
philosophical utilitarianism of the French Enlightenment. But as we
have seen, unlike the guillotine, the policy of the Terror was not simply
or straightforwardly a product of the new social science, as the propa-
gandists of the counter-revolution have often sought to maintain.
Rather, it stood in an ambiguous relation to the mechanisms of moder-
nity. It was a pursuit of ancient Reason through the instruments of
rationality, and hence a disastrous confusion, in de Stael’s terms, of ‘la
morale’ with ‘le calcul’.70
From the very beginning of the Revolution, Robespierre had
employed ‘progressive’ means to pursue an essentially ‘primitive’ ideal.
Hence his attempt to conduct representative government in the spirit of
direct democracy, and his desire to use legal procedures in order to tran-
scend the law. And if we follow this line of argument, it does not take
much to see, even at the heart of the Robespierrist Terror itself, a
Romantic spirit of transcendence, a desperate attempt to employ
enlightened means in order to get beyond the ethical vacuity of the
Enlightenment. Whereas other revolutionaries were prepared to
embrace the utility of the Terror, its circumstantial necessity,
Robespierre always sought to supply it with a metaphysical sanction,
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
constantly seeking to distract himself from its physical consequences by
referring to its overarching intention. His fantasy was that the Terror was
an entirely internal phenomenon which had entirely internal effects:
transforming the hearts and minds of slaves and tyrants, but not
affecting their bodies. Ironically enough, however, he was to become
synonymous with the guillotine through the very strenuousness of his
efforts to deny its very existence.


As the fortunes of the French armies changed, and the subsistence crisis
improved, a consensus began to grow in the National Convention during
the spring and summer of  that it was no longer necessary or desir-
able for Terror to be the order of the day. This finally resulted in the pro-
scription and execution of the men who had been its chief defenders on
the Committee of Public Safety: Robespierre, and his supporters and
acolytes Couthon, Le Bas and Saint-Just. Of course, it would be pro-
foundly misguided to try and absolve the Robespierrists of their
responsibility for this bloody phase of French history; but at the same
time, it is also important to remember the political motives behind the
Thermidorean conspiracy which brought about their downfall. When it
began to dawn upon some of Robespierre’s most bloodthirsty colleagues
on the Committee of Public Safety that they might soon be called to task
for their role in the Terror, either by Robespierre himself, whom they sus-
pected of aspiring to a position of dictatorship, or else by the members
of the National Convention, who were reported to be growing tired of
the endless butchery, they began to depict L’Incorruptible as a despot and
a tyrant in order to distance themselves from political blame. To all
intents and purposes, men such as Collot d’Herbois, Billaud Varennes,
Tallien and Barère had been as fervently committed to revolutionary
government as any during the terrible months of –, but because
they had not shared Robespierre’s obsession to explain, to justify, to con-
tinually moralise the Terror, it was relatively easy for them to begin to per-
suade the conventionnels that he had been its sole contriver. Nevertheless,
they were by no means political innocents. In the words of Robert
Southey, who was to retain a curious fondness for Robespierre, even long
after he had reneged and become a Tory: ‘The Fall of Robespierre was
the triumph of fear rather than of justice, and the satisfaction with which
it must be contemplated is incomplete because a few monsters even worse
than himself were among the foremost in sending him to the scaffold.’71
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
That Robespierre himself was mindful of this can be seen from a
speech he gave on  Thermidor, Year  ( July ), the day before
Tallien’s coup was finally hatched against him, in which he protested to
the National Convention that he was being transformed into a kind of
scapegoat for the Terror. Increasingly he was being treated as if he had
single-handedly managed every aspect of its existence, drafting every
indictment, and supervising every execution: ‘There is perhaps not one
individual arrested, not one citizen persecuted to whom it has not been
said of me: He is the author of your ills; you would be happy and free, if he existed
no more. How can I imagine or relate all of the lies that have been secretly
insinuated in the National Convention and elsewhere to render me
fearful and contemptible?’72 And so, despite all the evidence to the con-
trary, he continued to protest his political innocence in the months
leading up to his downfall, as if he could still detach his ‘primitive’ ideal
from the ‘progressive’ methods by which he had sought to bring it about.
Desperately, he sought to reassert the transparent understanding
between himself and the people which had been the bedrock of his
political authority:
Who is the tyrant protecting me? Which is the faction to which I belong? It is
you. Which is the faction that has since the beginning of the Revolution over-
whelmed all factions and banished all proven traitors? It is you, it is the people,
it is principles. That is the faction to which I am devoted, and against whom all
crimes are leagued.73
But as the logic of exclusion fell upon him, he resisted becoming just
another suspect, preferring to exchange the guise of the legislator for that
of the solitary. So that as his political martyrdom approached, he con-
tinued to offer himself as a transparent reflection of the will of the
people, while drawing fervently upon an identifiably Rousseauvian
rhetoric of isolation and resignation. As we have seen, in the first
‘Promenade’ of his Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Rousseau had protested
against the universal conspiracy that had been organised against him,
primarily by his former friends the philosophes, but subsequently by the
rest of the world: ‘So now I am alone in the world,’ he wrote, ‘with no
brother, neighbour or friend, and no company left me but my own. The
most sociable and loving of men has been unanimously proscribed by
all the rest.’74 And similarly, in the last weeks of his life, Robespierre was
to represent himself as a thwarted philanthropist whose very virtue had
made him an object of scorn. ‘Who am I that they accuse?’ he declared
on the day before his death:
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
A slave of liberty, a living martyr of the republic, the victim as much as the
enemy of crime. Scoundrels abuse me; the most indifferent, the most legitimate
actions on the part of others, are crimes for me. A man is accused if he even
comes into contact with me. Others are pardoned for their faults, my zeal is
turned into a crime. Take my conscience away from me, and I would be the
most unhappy of men.75
In Rousseau’s political theory it was suggested that liberty and equal-
ity would finally be attained if the individual identified with the general
will. In his autobiographical writings, however, this polarity was
reversed: both the Confessions and the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire set up
the possibility that the people might rediscover their capacity to assem-
ble as a unified general will by identifying with the incorruptible con-
science of a virtuous individual. And it was in emulation of this practice
that in his final speech Robespierre offered himself as the utopian prin-
ciple within a corrupt state:
For myself, whose life seems to the enemies of my country an obstacle to their
odious plans, I freely consent to sacrifice it, if their awful empire must continue
to exist. Who could desire to witness any longer this horrible succession of trai-
tors more or less deft at hiding their hideous hearts underneath a mask of virtue
until the moment when their crimes reached fruition, leaving posterity the
embarrassment of deciding which of the enemies of my country was the most
cowardly and the most atrocious?76
According to Jacobin ideology, the guillotine restored the unanimity
of the general will by removing the will of the recalcitrant individual,
reasserting republican transparency by clearing away the aristocratic
obstacle. Here, however, the polarity of the opposition between the indi-
vidual and the general has been suddenly reversed. The ‘Incorruptible’
depicts himself as the only obstacle to the ‘animosité générale’ of the
counter-revolution, offering to sacrifice himself in order that its uni-
versal progress might resume. Thus in Robespierre’s final speeches
egotism becomes the paradoxical expression of a disappointed
Jacobinism. Paradoxical, moreover, in both senses of the word, for it is
revolutionary in its wilful resistance to the prevailing orthodoxy, but it is
also fundamentally contradictory in its misanthropic expression of a
vanishing civic ideal.
As he had predicted, Robespierre became the prime site for the dis-
placement of revolutionary guilt and disappointment in the years after
Thermidor. Thus especially in the liberal histories of the period, he was
regularly depicted as a tyrannical figure who had wrecked the
Revolution through his hypocritical and bloodthirsty pursuit of an
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre 
impractical model of virtue. Gradually, however, he was taken up by
counter-revolutionary historians too, and though they were understand-
ably far less interested in putting the sole blame for the Revolution upon
him, they did nevertheless enjoy transforming him into a kind of politi-
cal Tartuffe, beneath whose virtuous appearance the darkest ambitions
had lain concealed. And it was this that encouraged historians like
Walter Scott to dwell with fascination upon the ‘fiendish expression’ of
his death-mask, as if it was only in death that his political disguise had
been fully exposed. And indeed, it was precisely because of details like
this that he became the historical source behind many of the masked
and cowled hypocrites that were later to litter the poetry and fiction of
the period, from Ann Radcliffe’s evil monk Schedoni to Thomas
Moore’s Veiled Prophet of Khorassan.77 But aside from his status as one
of the literary daemons of Romantic writing, however, there was another,
less obvious side to Robespierre’s revolutionary legacy, which had a
considerable influence upon the literary practice of the English
Romantics: he provided a powerful paradigm of the politics of confes-
sion. For in his final speeches, he effectively went beyond Rousseau’s
cultivation of autobiography as a consolation for private disappoint-
ment, transforming his rhetoric of self-martyrdom into a form of politi-
cal discourse, and by this means he gave a dramatic demonstration to his
contemporaries of how confession might offer, at one and the same time,
a means of transcending the débâcle of revolutionary history, and also
a method of incubating its utopian ideal.
  

Chivalry, justice and the law in William Godwin’s


Caleb Williams

The mind is its own place; and is endowed with powers that might
enable it to laugh at the tyrant’s vigilance. I passed and repassed
these ideas in my mind; and, heated with the contemplation, I said,
No I will not die!1


Unjustly incarcerated on a charge contrived by his former master
Ferdinando Falkland, the eponymous hero of William Godwin’s Things
As They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams () discovers in his prison
cell a revolutionary spirit of resistance. Like Rousseau on the road to the
prison of Vincennes, suddenly overcome with an overpowering sense of
the depravity of modern society, Caleb responds to the spectacle of
despotism by undergoing a powerful revolution of mind; in a moment
the last trappings of feudal deference have fallen from him, and he has
resolved to defy the law and attempt his escape. In this way the double
title of Godwin’s novel advertised its double nature: it was at once a
biting critique of the English social order and a suspenseful gothic novel.
Thirty years after the first appearance of Godwin’s first novel the repub-
lican journalist William Hazlitt could still remember its impact: ‘We con-
ceive no one ever began Caleb Williams that did not read it through: no
one who read it could possibly forget it, or speak of it after any length of
time but with an impression as if the events and feelings had been per-
sonal to himself.’ Indeed Hazlitt felt certain that it deserved to occupy a
central place in the national literature: ‘The novel is utterly unlike any-
thing else that was ever written’, he wrote, ‘and is one of the most origi-
nal as well as powerful productions in the English language.’2
Undoubtedly he was especially fond of Caleb Williams on account of its
radical politics, for the novel contains an extended critique of Edmund
Burke’s defence of the principle of aristocracy in the Reflections on the

Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
Revolution in France (). And certainly, on a first reading, its primary
force lies precisely in its exposure of the ‘poison of chivalry’ that Godwin
had detected in Burke’s writing. But it was also far from complacent in
its radicalism. It did more than merely catalogue the crimes of aristoc-
racy, it also problematised many of the fundamental radical assumptions
of the period, especially in its questioning of the value of legislative
reform. And as I shall argue, in many ways it is precisely the paradoxi-
cal nature of this novel – its resistance not only to the ancient fiction of
chivalry but also to the modern fiction of law – which identifies it as a
truly ‘Jacobin’ text.


The first part of Caleb Williams, which is narrated to Caleb by his fellow
servant the old retainer Mr Collins, deals with the youth of their master
Ferdinando Falkland. Collins tells of the way in which Falkland grew up
dazzled by the ideology of chivalry, by the notion of aristocracy as the
rule of the best. This leads him to place upon himself strict standards of
courtesy and conduct, but also to guard his own honour and reputation
with paranoid fervour. A little way into the story, Godwin introduces us
to another type of ruler, Barnabas Tyrrel, an arrogant and tyrannical
country squire, who ruins a tenant on his estate, Hawkins, for resisting
his wishes, and drives to the grave his niece Miss Melville for refusing to
marry a man of his selection. In the course of these events Tyrrel comes
into conflict with the chivalrous and cultivated Falkland who resists his
petty tyranny by offering a model of benevolent patriarchy. After fre-
quently colliding with Falkland on a number of issues, Tyrrel attacks and
disgraces him in public, only to be found dead soon after. Initially, sus-
picion falls on Falkland, but it is gradually diverted to Hawkins and his
son, who are, in the end, tried and executed for Tyrrel’s murder.
Caleb Williams, the self-educated son of humble parents, enters the
narrative when he is appointed as Falkland’s secretary some time after
these events have taken place. By indulging his natural curiosity con-
cerning his master’s increasingly eccentric and troubled behaviour, and
by piecing together various items of anecdotal and written evidence,
Caleb becomes convinced that it was in fact Falkland who had murdered
Tyrrel. Obsessively driven to uncover the truth, Caleb remains at all
times fully imbued with a sense of Falkland’s fundamental benevolence
and virtue even after having discovered his secret, and shows no inclina-
tion to publicise his knowledge. Nevertheless, when Falkland becomes
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
aware that Williams has plucked out the heart of his mystery, he begins
to persecute him systematically, despite Williams’s protestations of
loyalty and confidence. Eventually Caleb is imprisoned on a false charge
of robbing his employer. He escapes, hiding out in a forest with a band
of anarchist outlaws, before moving to London in order to try and carve
out a living for himself, disguised as a Jew. Finally, however, he is tracked
down by Falkland’s agent Gines and brought to the bar. At his trial
Caleb is forced to lay a charge of murder against Falkland, and although
he has no proof to offer, his generosity and sincerity win from the mur-
derer a confession of his guilt. Godwin’s first draft of the ending had
been very different; it involved Falkland maintaining his innocence and
Williams being driven to insanity. The revised ending is if anything
more tragic. His golden reputation ruined, Falkland dies in despair
before he can be taken to trial, and Caleb is left with the feeling that he
has acted in a manner as bad if not worse than his master: ‘I have been
a murderer’, he concludes, ‘a cool, deliberate, unfeeling murderer’ (,
).
Throughout the novel, Falkland adheres to a particularly patrician
brand of civic humanism, a cult of neo-classical virtue reminiscent of
the writings of the late seventeenth-century moralist the Earl of
Shaftesbury. For Falkland only a landed gentleman possesses the means
and education necessary to the attainment of moral independence. In
this respect he is both the embodiment of civilisation and the agent of
its preservation. For him the cultivation of his aristocratic character is
far more important than the reputation of commoners such as the
Hawkinses or Caleb Williams. He makes this position clear in a
conversation that he has with Caleb on Alexander the Great in the first
chapter of volume two. Caleb suggests that one cannot think of
Alexander as a hero, as he was personally responsible for the deaths of
so many men. Immediately Falkland offers an energetic retort:
The death of a hundred thousand men is at first sight very shocking; but what
in reality are a hundred thousand such men more than a hundred thousand
sheep? It is mind, Williams, the generation of knowledge and virtue that we
ought to love. This was the project of Alexander; he set out in a great under-
taking to civilise mankind; he delivered the vast continent of Asia from the
stupidity and degradation of the Persian monarchy; and though he was cut off
in the midst of his career, we may easily perceive the vast effects of his project.
(, )
This was the kind of double standard that Tom Paine had sought to
expose in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. In a cele-
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
brated passage of this book Burke had interpreted the storming of
Versailles as the beginning of a new age of barbarism. Recollecting the
beauty and grace of Marie-Antoinette when he had seen her in his
youth, he registered his horror at her rough treatment by the Paris mob:
But the age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, economists and calcula-
tors has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never,
never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud
submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which
kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.3

For Burke ‘chivalry’ signified both a spirit of deference towards


ancient institutions and hierarchies and a commitment to one’s own
honour and self-respect. With the rise of commercial society, and its
culture of competitive individualism, he felt that these values were in
danger of being forgotten. In order to preserve the benefits of credit and
commerce, it was necessary that there should always be a principle of
social stability to counter-balance the frenzied fluctuations of the
market. He considered that if the landed aristocracy was permitted to
continue its traditional paternal role, the various classes and ranks of
society might continue to be connected by a series of organic affiliations
and not merely by the cold links of the cash-nexus. In order for this to
happen, however, it was crucial that the British public be warned away
from the dangerous ‘levelling’ tendencies of the French Revolution.4 In
Part I of The Rights of Man () the radical pamphleteer Tom Paine
endeavoured to show how Burke had concentrated on the short-lived
apprehension of a member of the royal family and neglected the eco-
nomic distress suffered by large numbers of the French people. A central
element of Paine’s counter-argument was that aristocratic societies
attached far too much importance to titles, badges and positions, and
that not enough emphasis was placed upon intrinsic qualities of mind
and spirit. ‘Mr, Burke should recollect that he is writing History and not
Plays’, he wrote of the Reflections, adding that ‘he pities the plumage but
forgets the dying bird’.5 In this way Paine argued that Burke’s sophistries
were far too absurd to be really persuasive, suggesting that it was really
rather a simple matter to shake off the shackles of deference and to see
the iniquities of aristocracy for what they really were.6
As we shall see, in Caleb Williams Godwin took Burke rather more seri-
ously, acknowledging the stubbornness of servility while seeking to
explore the reasons for it.7 After confessing to Caleb that he was respon-
sible for Tyrrel’s murder, Falkland becomes increasingly anxious that
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
his secret will be revealed. So he contrives to accuse Caleb of theft,
planting some trinkets in the latter’s trunk to serve as damning evidence.
At the private trial, Godwin shows how appearances work against the
poor. Not only the Justice of the Peace but also the people in the audi-
ence are far more willing to side with Falkland. His affluence and educa-
tion is seen as a guarantee of his disinterested virtue, his social
pre-eminence the visible sign of his moral superiority. However, the
audience is willing to attribute the meanest of motives to Caleb, for in
its eyes he is too poor and obscure to possess any ‘character’ at all.8
Realising that he is unable to prove his innocence, Caleb appeals, as
Jean-Jacques had done before him, to his master’s conscience:
One thing more I must aver; Mr Falkland is not deceived: he perfectly knows
that I am innocent. I had no sooner uttered these words than an involuntary cry
of indignation burst from every person in the room. (, )

The slightest suggestion that there is a gap between Falkland’s public


persona and his private feelings is seen as the most unnatural insub-
ordination and treachery. This point is made even more dramatically a
little later in the novel when Caleb, fleeing from the authorities, encoun-
ters by chance his old friend Mr Collins, whom he tries to convince of
his innocence:
‘Will you hear my justification? I am as sure as I am of my existence that I
can convince you of my purity’.
‘Certainly, if you wish it, I will hear you. But that must not be just now. I could
have been glad to decline it wholly. At my age I am not fit for the storm, and I
am not so sanguine as you in my expectation of the result. Of what would you
convince me? That Mr Falkland is a suborner and a murderer?’
I made no answer. My silence was an affirmative to the question.
‘And what benefit will result from this conviction? I have known you a promis-
ing boy, whose character might turn to one side or the other as events should
decide. I have known Mr Falkland in his maturer years, and have always
admired him as the living model of liberality and goodness. If you could change
all my ideas, and show me that there was no criterion by which vice might be
prevented from being mistaken for virtue, what benefit would arise from that?
I must part with all my interior consolation, and all my external connections.
And for what? What is it you propose? The death of Mr. Falkland by the hands
of the hangman?’
‘No. I will not hurt a hair of his head, unless compelled to it by a principle of
defence. But surely you owe me justice?’
‘What justice? The justice of proclaiming your innocence? You know what
consequences are annexed to that. But I do not believe I shall find you inno-
cent.’ (, )
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
In a notorious section of the Reflections Burke had given a reasoned
defence of prejudice. Rather than resisting the pre-rational preferences
that one has for one’s national institutions and customs, he argued, one
should allow oneself to be guided by them, for it was safer for the indi-
vidual to put his trust in the wisdom of his ancestors than to consult his
own ‘private stock of reason’, which was necessarily rather meagre in
comparision. In this way ‘prejudice’ fulfilled an important political func-
tion for Burke: it was the means by which a nation bound its subjects
together and maintained its moral character.9 Mr Collins represents
Burkean prejudice at its most stubborn. His moral sentiments cling so
closely to the crevices and contours of the existing social order that he
cannot separate them from an adherence to its orthodoxies without
losing his ethical grip. He feels that if he were to discover that Mr
Falkland is not a virtuous man, he would lose a sense of what virtue
means, for Falkland is its physical embodiment. Hence he would rather
carry on living in the world of pleasing illusions, with his prejudices
intact, than unveil a truth that would disturb and subvert them. For these
prejudices, he suggests, are what enable him to function and make moral
decisions.
Burke’s defence of prejudice attracted a great deal of scorn from radi-
cals such as Paine, James Mackintosh and Mary Wollstonecraft, who con-
sidered it a scandalous defence of servility.10 In Caleb Williams Godwin
showed the stubbornness and persistence of prejudice even as he
deplored its survival, for in the context of the novel, Mr Collins’s line of
argument is by no means absurd. Clearly, he recognises that if Caleb is
right, and one of the most respected embodiments of aristocratic virtue
is a fraud, then the question of whether it was proper for men such as
Falkland to be justices of the peace would have to be addressed, which
would problematise the exercise of provincial justice throughout
England. And that is why he wants Caleb to realise that there is no such
thing as justice without consequences. In the case of Mr Falkland, he
seems to say, the consequences of his arrest are so fearful that it is safer to
drop the charge. But if Caleb does not finally denounce his master, it is for
a rather different reason than the one hinted at by Collins. For crucially,
Caleb’s silence signifies, above all things, a refusal to put on the mantle of
the judge, showing that his main aim is not the punishment of his per-
secutor, or a reform of the legal system, but the attainment of an entirely
anti-institutional condition of justice. And as we shall see, this attitude to
crime and punishment is remarkably similar to that which had been
expressed by Godwin himself in his treatise on Political Justice of .
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism

In the chapter entitled ‘Of law’ in Book  of the first edition of Political
Justice Godwin attacked the discourse of custom that had provided the
basis of English law for centuries. Judicial decisions should not be made
according to precedent, he argued, for there is nothing to suggest that
our ancestors were any wiser or more virtuous than ourselves:
Law we sometimes call the wisdom of our ancestors. But this is a strange imposi-
tion. It was as frequently the dictate of their passion, of timidity, jealousy, a
monopolising spirit, and a lust of power that knew no bounds. Are we not
obliged perpetually to revise and remodel this misnamed wisdom of our ances-
tors? to correct it by a detection of their ignorance and a condemnation of their
intolerance?11
From the electoral system to the game laws, the British legal system
was designed to serve the ruling class, according to Godwin. It privileged
the rich at the expense of the poor. To this extent, he was in full agree-
ment with the mainstream radical position that was outlined in the two
parts of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. However, Godwin soon went beyond
Paine’s brief:
There is no maxim more clear than this, Every case is a rule to itself. No action
of any man was ever the same as any other action, had ever the same degree of
utility or injury. It should seem to be the business of justice, to distinguish the
qualities of men, and not, which has hitherto been the practice, to confound
them. (, )
During the latter half of the eighteenth century there was a growing
movement in favour of reforming the theory and practice of the law. A
number of writers began to suggest ways of rendering the legal system
at once more coherent and more humane, eradicating its injustices and
ironing out its anomalies. The Italian reformer Cesare Beccaria made
one of the most significant contributions to this movement. His treatise
Of Crimes and Punishments, which was translated into English in ,
sought to transform the way in which legislators thought about their
laws. He argued that punishments were effective only when they were
fitted to the misdemeanours they were intended to prevent. Measures
should be chosen ‘in due proportion to the crime, so as to make the most
efficacious and most lasting impression on the minds of men, and the
least painful impressions on the body of the criminal’.12 He also sug-
gested that ‘the disadvantage of the punishment should exceed the
advantage anticipated from the crime’. No longer would petty theft be
punishable by death, but it would always be disciplined and always in
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
exactly the same way, for uniform application was more of a deterrent
than arbitrary severity. And in the fourth volume of his Commentaries the
influential English legal theorist William Blackstone came to endorse
Beccaria’s view, declaring that ‘crimes are more effectively prevented by
the certainty than by the severity of punishment’, before going on to
acknowledge the latter’s general insight that ‘it is absurd and impolitic
to apply the same punishment to crimes of different malignity’.13
The principle of utility was central to Beccaria’s approach. Like
Helvétius and Bentham, he was convinced that the regulation of social
behaviour was more a matter of calculating consequences than of divin-
ing intentions.14 When determining punishment, only the effects of
crime were relevant, not the motivation of the criminal. Godwin agreed
with Beccaria that many of the existing laws of Europe were tyrannical
and that it was rational and humane to seek to reform them. But he also
thought that there were problems with Beccaria’s approach, considering
that although a system of punishment based on a calculation of conse-
quences would undoubtedly help prevent the punishment of minor
crimes with excessive severity, it would also tend to confound criminals
who were possessed of widely divergent intentions. Hence Godwin
asked his readers whether a system that levelled these inequalities and
confounded these difficulties could ever be ‘productive of good’. Surely,
he reasoned, it was important to take into account motives as well as con-
sequences:
Shall we inflict on the man who, in endeavouring to save the life of a drowning
fellow creature, oversets a boat, and occasions the death of a second, the same
suffering, as on him who from gloomy and vicious habits is incited to the murder
of his benefactor? In reality the injury sustained by the community is, by no
means, the same in these two cases . . . (, )

Thus, in the course of Political Justice Godwin was to quarrel with


liberal reformers as well as with reactionaries. After exposing the extent
to which the legal system was complicit with the interests of the ruling
order, he went on to denigrate the capacity of abstract laws to attend to
individual circumstances. For him, legislation was a clumsy and
inappropriate method of regulating human actions; it was, in effect, an
external alienation of the internal principle of justice. So much so, in
fact, that he repeatedly insisted that laws had no real authority over indi-
viduals, since government was nothing more than ‘regulated force’ (,
–). And by the same token he also declared his opposition to
written constitutions, arguing that ‘the true state of man, as has already
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
been demonstrated, is, not to have his opinions bound down in the
fetters of an eternal quietism, but flexible and unrestrained to yield with
facility to the impressions of increasing truth’ (, ). And so, in spite
of his general support of the Revolutionary cause he, like Robespierre,
was ultimately rather unimpressed by the system of ‘negative’ liberties
promised by the Declaration of the Rights of Man. For in his analysis, posi-
tive institution did not lead the way to justice, it simply dictated the chan-
nels in which bourgeois self-interest was to be allowed to flow. And finally
he considered that the exercise of private judgment was a far more reli-
able means of furthering social justice and general utility:
Men are weak at present, because they have always been told they are weak, and
must not be trusted with themselves . . . Tell them that the mountains of parch-
ment in which they have been hitherto entrenched, are fit only to impose upon
ages of superstition and ignorance; that henceforth we will have no dependence
but upon their spontaneous justice; that, if their passions be gigantic, they must
rise with gigantic energy to subdue them; that, if their decrees be iniquitous, the
iniquity shall be all their own. The effect of this disposition of things will soon
be visible; mind will rise to the level of the situation; juries and umpires will be
penetrated with the magnitude of the trust reposed in them. (, )
In the work of the French physiocrats rational critical debate was
designed to facilitate the formation of a truly ‘public’ authority.15 In
Godwin, however, the bourgeois public sphere in the private realm was
to be expanded to its furthest extent. It did not merely anticipate public
authority, it effectively replaced it. In his anarchist vision the state was to
dissolve entirely, leaving the realm of civil society to become a vast and
unregulated forum for public discussion. Under such conditions,
Godwin believed that the universal exercise of private judgment would
eventually produce a rational consensus. If each was allowed to pursue
the line of his or her own reasoning, all would eventually agree.
A more thoroughly systematic thinker than Tom Paine, Joseph
Priestley or James Mackintosh, Godwin was the most imposing intellec-
tual figure among the English Jacobins, deeply versed in the philosophi-
cal writings of the French Enlightenment as well as his native tradition
of radical dissent. Truly cosmopolitan in his approach, Godwin brought
identifiably French categories and concerns to his discussion of English
politics. And this was not lost on the conservative press, which attacked
him as a disciple of Rousseau and Helvétius, the twin fathers of French
Jacobinism.16 But despite his indebtedness to the French Enlightenment,
Godwin was to distance himself in Political Justice from the ideology of
legislation that had been developed by Helvétius and his followers.
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
As we saw in the last chapter, Claude Helvétius had considered that a
good system of laws, by carefully regulating the life of the subject, by
tactfully shaping his tastes and pleasures, was the best means by which
private interest was to be aligned with public benefit. And this approach
had found English expression in Jeremy Bentham’s Introduction to the
Principles of Morals and Legislation of . ‘Nature has placed mankind
under the governance of two sovereign masters’, Bentham wrote,
pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well
as to determine what we shall do . . . The principle of utility recognises this sub-
jection, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason
and law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense,
in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.’17

With the right institutions a citizen could be conditioned into fur-


thering the general good simply by following his own inclinations. For as
Leslie Stephen was later to remark: ‘The indefinite modificability of
character was the ground upon which the utilitarians placed their hopes
of progress.’18 Godwin shared the utilitarian belief in the human capac-
ity for self-improvement, but he did not believe that it could be brought
about through positive institution. It was not necessary for legislation to
harmonise the warring interests of society, because ultimately every
individual’s interest was identical with that of his fellows, if he could only
be persuaded to discover it.
Most recent commentators have considered that the central core of
Godwin’s moral and political philosophy is utilitarian in nature. Don
Locke has argued that in Political Justice ‘Godwin reveals himself merely
as a classical utilitarian, at one with Bentham and with Mill in consider-
ing an action by its consequences, in identifying goodness with happi-
ness, and happiness with pleasure.’19 Similarly, Peter Marshall writes that
‘[Godwin’s] departures from utilitarianism are more apparent than real
. . . whatever he borrows from different and incompatible traditions, he
consistently tried to base his principles on the utilitarian ethic.’20 J. P.
Clark even goes so far as to suggest that Political Justice became more con-
sistently utilitarian with each revision that Godwin made.21
In many ways, I would suggest, this line of argument can lead to a
serious misunderstanding of the historical and political character of
Godwin’s thought. For despite his fondness for the discourse of utility,
Godwin employed it in an entirely different spirit from Bentham and
Helvétius. He stretched it out of recognition, and transformed it into
something entirely new. And this is exemplified by the critique of the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
division of labour that was contained in Book  of Political Justice. A
leading tenet of utility theory was that the division and delegation of
work contributed to the greatest happiness of the greatest number by
maximising the production of goods and services. In Godwin’s mind,
however, it was actually highly pernicious, since the moral cost of
collaboration was always greater than its supposed material benefits.
According to this view of things, co-operation compromised and
degraded the workings of individual reason by undermining the princi-
ple of intellectual independence. Through this manoeuvre, bourgeois
political economy was subjected to criticism by the very discourse of
utility that it had helped to produce.22
The possibility of effecting a compendium of labour by this means will be
greatly diminished, when men shall learn to deny themselves superfluities. The
utility of such a saving of labour, where labour is so little, will scarcely balance
against the evils of so extensive a cooperation. (, )
Perhaps even more controversial was Godwin’s assertion that even
private property was not in the general interest, since it was not an
efficient use of resources. The discourse of rights had attempted to
naturalise the doctrine of self-interest, he argued, but it could not dis-
guise the fact that no man was justified in hoarding or garnering any-
thing that could be more usefully placed in the hands of others. ‘Few
things have contributed more to undermine the energy and virtue of the
human species’ he declared in the  edition of Political Justice, ‘than
the supposition that we have a right, as it has been phrased, to do what
we will with our own.’23 According to the law of reason, redistribution
was a duty, and absolute equality of condition a desirable and attainable
end:
I have no right to dispose of [property] at my caprice; every shilling of it is
appropriated by the laws of morality . . . (, )
True liberty and equality, in Godwin’s analysis, was not to be achieved
by a programme of laissez-faire legislation facilitating the greater
circulation of goods and commodities, but by a redistribution of prop-
erty and a dissolution of government. He imagined a state in which men
would be able to recapture the autonomy and transparency of
Rousseau’s primitive society, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of
philosophical and material progress.24
In his impressive study of Political Justice Mark Philp has argued that
recent commentators have placed too much emphasis upon its debt to
the philosophes. Philp admits that the initial project of the treatise was
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
inspired by the readings of Helvétius, Holbach and Rousseau that
Godwin had made in the s, suggesting that one can see the
influence of French rationalism especially in its opening books. But he
then goes on to argue that Godwin came to question many aspects of
Continental thought during the course of composition, and that
increasingly he found himself returning to his roots in rational dissent.
Throughout his discussion Philp finds it unproblematic to consider
Rousseau a philosophe, grouping him together with Helvétius and
Holbach as disciples of utilitarianism.25 He neglects the extent to which
a text such as the ‘Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar’ offered a
moral philosophy which was far more compatible with radical English
protestantism than with the hedonistic materialism of the French
tradition. Developing this line of reasoning, I would like to argue that
Godwin’s Political Justice owes more to the metaphysic of morals that
was developed in Emile than most commentators have been prepared to
acknowledge.
Godwin had agreed with Helvétius that the life of the individual was
fully determined by his external circumstances, but he also insisted upon
giving the utilitarian tradition a new inflection in the distinction he drew
between the man who was merely a victim of circumstantial necessity,
and the man who firmly embraced it. While the non-rational subject was
involuntarily caught up in an endless cycle of causes and effects, the
rational one pursued the course that contributed most to the general
welfare by balancing the social benefits of an action against its dis-
advantages. But Godwinian reason was always more of an internal voice
than an external computation of consequences: ‘We have in reality
nothing that is strictly speaking our own’, he wrote in a chapter attack-
ing the notion of individual rights, ‘we have nothing that has not a
destination prescribed to it by the immutable voice of reason and justice,
and respecting which, if we supersede that destination, we do not entail
upon ourselves a certain portion of guilt.’ As we saw in the passage on
the law quoted earlier, Godwinian reason aspired to be ‘penetrated’ by
‘spontaneous justice’. Despite its professed commitment to the felicific
calculus, it possessed a metaphysical rather than a mathematical soul. In
this respect it displayed its kinship with the faculty of ‘conscience’ that
had been recommended in Emile:
The less the object of our cares is our own selves, the less we have to fear from
the illusion of our particular interest, the more one generalises that interest, the
more it becomes equitable; and the love of the human race in us is nothing other
than the love of justice.26
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
At one point in Political Justice Godwin referred to Rousseau as ‘one of
the principal reservoirs of philosophical truth as yet existing in the
world’, full of ‘eloquence’ even if his work was characterised by ‘a per-
petual mixture of absurdity and mistake’:
Having frequently quoted Rousseau in the course of this work, it may be allow-
able to say one word of his general merits as a moral and political writer. He
has been subjected to continual ridicule for the extravagance of the proposition
with which he began his literary career; that the savage state was the genuine
and proper condition of man. It was however by a very slight mistake that he
missed the opposite opinion which it is the business of the present inquiry to
establish. He only substituted, as the topic of his eulogium, the period that pre-
ceded government and laws, instead of the period that may possibly follow
upon their abolition27 . . . He was the first to teach that the imperfections of
government were the only perennial source of the vices of mankind; and this
principle was adopted from him by Helvétius and others. But he saw farther
than this, that government, however formed, was little capable of affording
solid benefit to mankind, which they did not. (, ; , )
Given his radical individualism, Godwin was bound to be unim-
pressed by the collectivist theory of legislation developed in the Contrat
Social.28 But despite the evidence of his neo-Spartan political theory,
Godwin considered that fundamentally Rousseau had been an anarchist
like himself. Indeed his vision of the perfect free and equal society of the
future in the latter part of Political Justice owes a lot to the description of
primitive society contained in the second Discours:
If superfluity were banished, the necessity for the greater part of the manual
industry of mankind would be superseded; and the rest, being amicably shared
among the active and vigorous members of the community, would be burthen-
some to none. Every man would have a frugal yet wholesome diet; every man
would go forth to that moderate exercise of his corporal functions that would
give hilarity to the spirits; none would be made torpid with fatigue, but all would
have leisure to cultivate the kindly and philanthropical affections of the soul,
and to let loose his faculties in search of intellectual improvement. (, –)
Theoretically Godwin’s proposals could not have been more libertar-
ian and egalitarian, for his proposals for redistribution were more con-
crete and systematic than anything in the Contrat Social or the two
Discours. Practically, however, in defining and determining his utopian
end so rigorously, he effectively took away the means. For if Rousseau
and Robespierre’s class bias lay in their frequent evasions of the prop-
erty question, Godwin’s lay in his refusal – which became ever more
absolute in subsequent editions of Political Justice – to sanction any form
of political collaboration or association:
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
Instead of making each man an individual, which the interest of the whole
requires, [party] resolves all understandings into one common mass, and sub-
tracts from each the varieties that could alone distinguish him from a brute
machine. (, )
The central problem with Political Justice for many of the radicals of
the s, was that, although it had very successfully woven a blissful
vision of the future, it had actually given very little practical advice as to
how it was to be brought into being, other than recommending patient
discussion and the universal exercise of private judgement. And given
the inescapably turbid and theatrical nature of politics during the mid-
s, it was not difficult to argue that Godwin’s rather excessively
patient and philosophical approach was deeply out of tune with the
times. So much so, indeed, that the English radical speaker and
pamphleteer, John Thelwall, who had been a fervent Godwinian in the
early days of Political Justice, gradually came to realise that a complete
acceptance of Godwin’s strictures on co-operation would effectively
destroy the popular radical movement in England. And since he believed
that numbers were necessary to lend power and urgency to popular
demands, and that it was only through collective action that the existing
order would be transformed, he increasingly moved away from
philosophical anarchism, having become convinced that without
combination or mass demonstration, the fulfilment of radical aspira-
tions would become subject to an indefinite deferral.29
So it was, then, that in the climate of political reaction that character-
ised Britain in the later s Political Justice was often considered by radi-
cals and conservatives alike as a work of cold abstraction, a pernicious
product of the systematising impulse of the French Enlightenment. And
later critics have taken their cue from this, depicting Godwin’s later
works as a recognition of the insufficiency of abstract reason and a
belated acknowledgement of the power of moral sentiments. This is not,
however, an accurate assessment of his work. It is true that Godwin’s
revisions of Political Justice toned down some of the more stridently
rationalist formulations from the first edition, but they did not represent
a fundamental shift in approach. As we have seen, Godwinian reason
was always the product of an ‘enthusiasm’ for justice. Even in  it
constituted itself through a channelling of the passions rather than a
repudiation of them. Despite this, however, the image of Godwin as an
arch-rationalist continues to pervade discussions of his work. On a
number of occasions, literary historians have been tempted to regard
Caleb Williams as an inadvertent critique of the moral philosophy of
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Political Justice simply on account of its exploration of the stubbornness
and pervasiveness of the irrational. Adopting a different approach, I
would like to look at the way in which the novel successfully developed
the central theme of the treatise, expanding upon its general critique of
positive institutions by exploring the effect of legal prejudice upon a par-
ticular set of circumstances.30


At the private trial in the middle of Godwin’s novel, Caleb remains silent
about Tyrrel’s murder, unwilling to accuse Falkland in the context of the
courtroom. He does not want Falkland to be punished, but for his deed
to be known and understood, and for his blameworthy but explicable
action to be judged on its own terms, and not according to the general
and unthinking precedents of law. His concern would be to allow the
unique nature of the case to be considered sympathetically by each
member of the jury. In this sense, all the signs are that Caleb is a good
Godwinian by instinct.
Unwilling to accuse his accuser, Caleb can only persist in protesting
that his master knows him to be blameless, to which the presiding justice
of the peace, Mr Forester responds by requesting that he defend himself
without appealing to Falkland. Forester sees the issue simply in terms of
the relation of the individual to the law, a relationship which is to be
ascertained by the sifting of empirical evidence. What he fails to under-
stand, however, is that this legalistic approach, besides operating in fatal
collusion with an unjust social order, fails to comprehend the circum-
stances of the case. By concentrating on the criminal charge, Forester
effectively binds Caleb in chains, for the trial is essentially a matter of
conscience between him and his master which transcends the machin-
ery of the law.
As the trial proceeds, it is assumed by the jury that Caleb is guilty.
When Falkland shows signs of wanting to be lenient, Forester insists that
Williams’s prosecution is necessary to uphold the principle of deference:
‘By this unexampled villainy he makes it your duty to free the world of
such a pest, and your interest to admit no relaxing in your pursuit of him,
lest the world should be persuaded by your clemency to credit his vile
insinuations’ (, ). The law binds both the accuser and the accused,
as it becomes clear to Falkland he must prosecute Caleb in order to
uphold his reputation. However, Falkland continues to resist a public
trial:
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
I care not for consequences, replied Mr Falkland, I will obey the dictates of my
own mind. I will never lend my assistance to the reforming mankind by axes
and gibbets; I am sure things will never go well, till honour and not law be the
dictator of mankind, till vice is taught to shrink before the resistless might of
inborn dignity, and not before the cold formality of statutes. If my calumniator
were worthy of my resentment I would chastise him with my own sword, and
not that of the magistrate; but in the present case I smile at his malice, as the
generous lord of the forest spares the insect that would disturb his repose. (,
)
Here Godwin problematises the whole question of intentions. Is
Falkland’s reply a calculated show of mercy towards Caleb designed to
pre-empt any future revelation? Or is it a spirited defence of the princi-
ple of chivalry and a thinly veiled confession of murder? Is it the product
of consummate hypocrisy or passionate sincerity? The suggestion is,
perhaps, that it is both of these things, and that this duplicity has been
forced upon Falkland by the legal context in which he speaks.
Committed to following the proper procedures of the law, Forester
grows impatient with Falkland’s responses, finding them full of
‘romance’ and not ‘reason’:
This is no time to settle the question between chivalry and law. I shall therefore
simply insist as a magistrate, having taken the evidence in this felony, upon my
right and duty of following the course of justice, and committing the accused
to the county jail. (, )
Locked in an implacable enmity, Falkland and Caleb are also bound
together by the recognition that true justice transcends the formal cate-
gories of jurisprudence. This is made clear later in the novel when
Falkland persuades Caleb not to reveal that he is a murderer:
Will a reasonable man sacrifice to barren truth, when benevolence, humanity
and every consideration that is dear to the human heart require that it should
be superseded? (, )
In this passage Godwin rehearses some of his own convictions on the
inefficacy of punishment. Falkland feels that true justice would under-
stand how he came to murder Barnabas Tyrrel, sympathising with his
fundamental benevolence. In a legal context, however, truth is rendered
barren, for it becomes nothing more than the accumulation of evidence,
drained of all ethical content, attending only to the external conse-
quences of a crime and not to the inner intentions of its perpetrator.
Despite their different perspectives, both Falkland and Caleb share this
notion of the superiority of private judgment over and above the work-
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
ings of institutional law, a mutual understanding that their pact of
silence over the murder of Tyrrel has served to cement.
During the course of the novel Caleb comes to recognise the flaws and
contradictions in the ideology of chivalry. He sees that its notion of
justice is skewed by a violent class bias and that its aspiration to virtue is
undermined by an excessive concern for honour and reputation. But he
remains committed to the ideal of moral freedom and independence
that Falkland had once embodied. Conversely, mere appearance is not
enough for Falkland either. He is too genuinely committed to the
concept of ‘inborn dignity’ to live comfortably with hypocrisy. In his
heart of hearts he shares Caleb’s scorn for exteriors, and that is why he
is so endlessly tormented by the gap between his golden reputation and
his secret crime. In this way Falkland’s relentless pursuit of Caleb can be
seen as an attempt simultaneously to prevent and to encourage a neo-
Jacobin critique of aristocracy. Throughout the period of their mutual
enmity, Falkland remains Caleb’s ideal, and Caleb continues to act as
Falkland’s conscience: they are bound together in a complex relationship
of identification and repudiation, silently complicit with the values of
the other.
One way of understanding this narrative is to see it as an allegory of
civil society. For the novel offers a fictional version of a historical trajec-
tory that was very popular with eighteenth-century historians. This
interpretation would tend to see Tyrrel as an embodiment of the primi-
tive barbarism that was deemed to have prevailed before the rise of
chivalry, a period during which might was supposed the only right.
When Falkland enters the locality, he brings civilised values to the com-
munity, principles of honour and duty that go beyond mere physical
force. In this sense he can be seen as an emblem of chivalry as a histori-
cal phenomenon.31 However, the novel does not fail to point out that
even this new and better order has been brought about by an act of
usurpation – in this case, a murder – which hints that this new phase of
civilisation is merely a gilded version of its predecessor. In this way
Godwin suggests that, even if, in certain respects, chivalry could be seen
to represent an anticipation of true reason and benevolence, it is never-
theless riven with hypocrisy and injustice. He effectively subjects civic
humanism to a dialectical critique at once ideological and utopian,
exposing its limitations while not wholly dissociating himself from its
metaphysic of morals. Germaine de Staël was to make a similar point in
her account of the history of the relationship between literature and
social institutions in De la littérature ():
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
Every institution that is good relative to some danger of the moment but not in
relation to eternal reason, becomes an insupportable abuse after it has corrected
abuses larger than itself. Chivalry was necessary because it softened military
ferocity through its respect for women and its religious spirit; but chivalry as an
order, as a sect, as a means of separating men instead of uniting them, had to
be considered as a dreadful evil, as soon as it ceased to be an indispensable
remedy.32
The difference is, of course, that whereas de Staël envisaged a smooth
transition from the ‘chivalric’ manners of the past to the ‘republican’
virtues of the future, Godwin expressed a certain anxiety about what
that would entail. Would it usher in a democratisation of the principles
of chivalry? Or would it represent an entirely new way of organising the
forces within society, one entirely uncommitted to the principle of per-
sonal virtue, and completely drained of all ethical content? Indeed in
this respect he was, like his own character Ferdinando Falkland, clearly
concerned that ‘Reason’ should not be reduced to a merely legalistic
rationality, possessing a profound anxiety about the nature of the new
bourgeois order even as he was helping it into being.


As William Godwin was putting the finishing touches to Caleb Williams
in England, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Couthon were finally
formalising the principles of revolutionary justice in France. In a
paradoxical attempt to legalise the illegal spirit of the Revolution, they
sought to transform law from a set of external statutes into an affair of
the conscience. As we saw in the last chapter, the law of the  Prairial
of  dispensed with legal defence in the case of criminal trials, so that
justice became primarily a matter of ascertaining intentions rather than
filtering through evidence. This was an attempt to moralise the conduct
of public authority, moving beyond the ‘negative’ concept of liberty and
legality that had been developed during the legislative phase of the
Revolution. In this respect Robespierre’s mistrust of the law was not dis-
similar to that of the English conservative Edmund Burke, who had
attacked the French constitution-mongers of  in a famous passage
of the Reflections:
On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold
hearts and muddy understandings, and is as void of solid wisdom, as it is desti-
tute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors,
and by the concern, which each individual may find in them, from his own
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
private speculations, or can spare to them from his private interests. In the
groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the
gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on behalf of the com-
monwealth.33
In a society with no principle of civic unity to offset the strictures of
cold legality, Burke argued, individual citizenship would come to consist
of nothing more than learning to rein in one’s own private interests. The
law would represent only the visible limits of one’s freedom, it would not
provide a positive definition of liberty. In this way the modern subject
would be invited to indulge freely in his own ‘speculations’ as long as he
did not transgress its bounds. In this way the Declaration of the Rights of
Man of  represented the legislative embodiment of the modern
commercial spirit. As was mentioned before, Burke remained convinced
that the destructive potential of capitalism could only be kept under
control if society retained a commitment to ‘manners’. He conceived of
‘manners’ in terms of a modernisation of the finer principles of aristo-
cratic chivalry and deference which served to soften the workings of
commercial society, safeguarding its achievements by offsetting its per-
nicious tendencies. For him a respect for the aristocracy remained of
central importance to the stability of society, as the independent nobil-
ity was the fullest embodiment of positive liberty. In deferring to this
class of men, in acknowledging the moral superiority of land over and
above credit, the middling and lower ranks would preserve a respect for
the abstract principle of moral independence and the possibility of real-
ising their full humanity. Not only civilised in itself, the aristocracy was
thus the cause of civilisation in other men. It helped to gather the indi-
vidual subjects of a nation around a set of common values, and counter-
balance the demoralising effect of commerce.34 In France, however,
social conditions were markedly different. By the end of the eighteenth
century, the nobility had declined into a comparatively functionless and
yet still rather exclusive caste. It was not possible for the French civic
humanists to highlight the insufficiencies of negative liberty by rein-
venting and redeploying the language of chivalry. This was why
Robespierre had been forced to locate political virtue not in property but
in the secret passions of the human heart.
Both Robespierre and Burke had been driven to employ the language
of paradox in an attempt to develop a notion of liberty that differed from
the ‘negative’ formulation supplied by bourgeois jurisprudence. Burke
used oxymoron in order to suggest that politics was far more compli-
cated than liberal bourgeois radicals such as Richard Price had been
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
prepared to allow. In recommending ‘proud submission’, ‘dignified obe-
dience’, and the ‘freedom’ of an ‘exalted servitude’ in the passage on
Marie-Antoinette, he sought to argue that there was a self-respect to be
had from submission that it might not be either pleasant or useful to
renounce. He wanted his readers to consider the possibility that they
should not judge a respect for appearances merely on appearances. But
Burke’s curious compounds were not without their risks, for as his radical
antagonists pointed out, they served to expose the duplicity at the heart
of his ideology of chivalry even as they gestured towards its peculiar
value.35
While Burke was recommending the freedom of servitude,
Robespierre was trying to legalise the illegal spirit of the revolution. As
we saw in these first two chapters, he had spoken regularly of ‘the despo-
tism of liberty against tyranny’ in order to suggest that freedom could
be an active moral force and not merely a set of legal entitlements. In
the eyes of many contemporaries, however, his constant recourse to oxy-
moron only served to dramatise the complicity between revolutionary
Jacobinism and the feudal tyrannies of the past.
Godwin’s Caleb Williams offers a compelling commentary to the politi-
cal history of the French Revolution precisely because it explores the
secret complicity between ‘primitive’ Jacobinism and feudal despotism,
between the metaphysic of conscience developed by Rousseau and
Robespierre and the ideology of chivalry espoused by Burke and
Shaftesbury. In the public trial at the end of Godwin’s novel Caleb pros-
trates himself before the jury, begging them to believe that he is inno-
cent. In the published version of the ending, his disarming candour
ultimately persuades Falkland to confess his murder of Tyrrel: ‘I see’,
says Falkland, ‘that the artless and manly story you have told, has carried
conviction to every hearer’ (, ). Throughout the novel, Caleb con-
stantly employs this rhetoric: ‘I will never believe’, he says at one point
‘that a man’s conscience of innocence cannot make other men perceive
that he has that thought.’ In this sense Caleb’s belief in the commu-
nicative power of individual sincerity reproduces a central argument of
Political Justice: ‘If every man to-day would tell all the truth he knew’,
Godwin wrote, ‘three years hence there would be scarcely a falsehood of
any magnitude remaining in the civilised world.’36 But Caleb has no
right to resort to this Rousseauvian language of sincerity, for after resolv-
ing not to divulge Falkland’s secret, he is neither innocent nor candid for
the predominant part of the narrative.37 Only when he accuses his
former master of murder in the closing chapters of the book does he
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
finally make the truth plain. Most of the time, his account of events does
not add up. As Mr Forester points out to him:
Is this the way to obtain the favour of a man of consequence and respectabil-
ity? To pretend to make a confidence and then tell him a disjointed story that
has not common sense in it! (, )
Of course, one of Godwin’s primary purposes in the novel is to bring
to the reader’s attention the formidable power of social prejudice. It is
made clear that if at any point in the novel Caleb were to tell the truth,
nobody would believe him. Nevertheless, Godwin does also make us
aware of the extent to which Caleb is guilty of mauraise foi. He appeals to
the conscience of his auditors but he is unwilling to unburden his own.
His prejudice in favour of his master is stronger than his commitment to
the truth. Thus we can speak of a species of ‘bad conscience’ in Caleb
that emerges from his refusal to divulge his secret sympathy with the aris-
tocratic Falkland and his chivalric spirit. Allegorically this can be seen to
expose the complicity of revolutionary Jacobinism with feudal despotism.
In a chapter ‘On Revolutions’ which was rewritten for the second
edition of Political Justice () Godwin drew attention to the way in
which the Terror had merely reproduced the despotism of the ancien
régime: ‘Revolution is instigated by a horror against tyranny’, he wrote,
‘yet its own tyranny is not without peculiar aggravations. There is no
period more at war with the existence of liberty’ (, ). In its attempt
to legislate virtue into existence the Terror had merely exacerbated the
evils of positive institution:
Thus, we propose to make men free; and the method we adopt, is to influence
them more rigorously than ever, by the fear of punishment. We say that govern-
ment has usurped too much, and we organise a government tenfold more
encroaching in its principles and terrible in its proceedings. Is slavery the best
project that can be devised for making men free? Is a display of terror the readi-
est mode for rendering [men] fearless, independent and enterprising? (, )
Extending the liberal critique of monarchical government and
jurisprudence developed in  the Jacobins went on to question the
very nature and value of legislation itself. And whereas Godwin’s cri-
tique of positive institutions resulted in a proposal for their dissolution,
that of Robespierre merely led to the emergence of a new and more
coercive form of public authority. The law of  Prairial revolutionised
the courtroom, but it did not dispense with it as an institution. Conceived
as a sublime internal principle, revolutionary justice became radically
unjust as soon as it fell into the hands of individual judges. In theory the
Chivalry, justice and the law in Caleb Williams 
recourse to the conscience was impressively high-minded, in practice it
merely facilitated a series of rapid and ruthless executions. For as John
Adolphus was to describe:
The only punishment they pronounced was death, and that was applied to such
indefinite crimes as favouring the impunity of aristocracy; calumniating patriot-
ism; seeking to vilify the revolutionary tribunal; to corrupt the public mind and
conscience; and stopping the progress of revolutionary principles. The neces-
sary proofs consisted of every description of document, whether material,
verbal or written, which carries in itself self-evidence, and when there were
material or moral proofs, no witnesses were to be heard. The rule of the sen-
tence was the conscience of the jurors.38

Robespierre had been right to pursue the moral renovation of France,


according to Godwin, but he had been wrong to pursue it through
legislation. Curiously, the latter was not averse to the notion of a purga-
tion of society, he simply considered that it could not be brought about
by human agency. Death itself was not an evil, he suggested, unless it
was the product of a deliberate action. Thus in the latter half of the
chapter ‘On Revolutions’ Godwin briefly indulged his own fantasy of
regeneration:
The abuses which at present exist in all political societies are so enormous, the
oppressions which are exercised so intolerable, the ignorance and vice they
entail so dreadful, that possibly a dispassionate enquirer might decide that, if
their annihilation could be purchased by an instant sweeping of every human
being off the face of the earth, the purchase would not be too dear. (, )

Like Robespierre, Godwin looked forward to the creation of a new


race of men, but he did not believe it could be brought about by leg-
islative means. Hence he remained residually sympathetic to the purga-
tive impulse of revolutionary Jacobinism while firmly withdrawing it
from the realm of political praxis. In the years after the Terror, Godwin
continued to reformulate and rearticulate his anarchist principles, but he
abandoned the systematic mode of presentation that characterised
Political Justice. As we shall see, he preferred the essay form as a medium
which advertised the resolutely private nature of his essays in private
judgment. It was almost as if he felt there had been too much of the leg-
islative spirit in his systematic attack on legislation.
This sense of complicity is already present in the final trial scene of
Caleb Williams, where Caleb is finally forced to disclose the nature of
Falkland’s crime. After confessing the truth to the jury he is immediately
overcome by remorse:
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
I have told a plain and unadulterated tale. I came hither to curse, but I remain
to bless. I came to accuse, but am compelled to applaud. I proclaim to all the
world that Mr Falkland is a man worthy of affection and kindness, and that I
am myself the worst of villains! Never will I forgive myself the iniquity of this
day. The memory will always haunt me, and embitter every hour of my exis-
tence. (, )
Conditioned by the circumstances in which he finds himself, Caleb is
forced to accuse his master in order to defend himself from accusation.
All too aware of the consequences of this, he cannot help but think of
it as an act of murder. The truth has been disnatured by its legal
setting: Caleb’s appeal to the conscience is not an instrument of ‘true’
justice but, in spite of all he can do to prevent it, an act of revenge
against the institution of aristocracy. By a sudden metamorphosis, the
Rousseauvian solitary has been transformed into a revolutionary terror-
ist. In this way Godwin’s novel both reflects consciously upon, and
unconsciously repeats, some of the central impulses of ‘primitive’
Jacobinism, compellingly aware of its ambivalent status as a political
ideology at once revolutionary and anti-modern, standing in a paradoxi-
cal relation to the emergent structures of bourgeois society, caught pain-
fully between a democratic vision of the future and the feudal freedom
of the past.
  

‘The Prometheus of Sentiment’: Rousseau,


Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education


Pondering the failure of the Norwegian peasantry to follow her enlight-
ened advice on child-rearing in the eighth of her Letters Written During A
Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark of , Mary Wollstonecraft
was moved to comment upon the peculiar resistance to ‘improvement’
often exhibited by primitive societies:
Reflecting on these prejudices made me revert to the wisdom of those legisla-
tors who established institutions for the good of the body under the pretext of
serving heaven for the salvation of the soul. These might with strict propriety
be termed pious frauds, and I admire the Peruvian pair for asserting that they
came from the sun, when their conduct proved that they meant to enlighten a
benighted country, whose obedience, or even attention, could only be secured
by awe. Thus much for conquering the inertia of reason; but, when it is once in
motion, fables, once held sacred, may be ridiculed; and sacred they were, when
useful to mankind. – Prometheus alone stole fire to animate the first man; his
posterity need not supernatural aid to preserve the species, though love is gener-
ally termed a flame, and it may not be necessary much longer to suppose men
inspired by heaven to inculcate the duties which demand special grace, when
reason convinces them that they are happiest who are most nobly employed.1
Ostensibly, Wollstonecraft considers the possibility of a persistent
inertia of reason only in order finally to dismiss it; briefly contemplating
the usefulness of ‘pious frauds’ before laying them aside. Western
civilization will soon render such grand impostures a thing of the past,
she suggests, once the progress of reason has gained sufficient momen-
tum. Implicitly, however, she does admit that this time had not yet come
to pass, half-acknowledging the existence of a disconcerting interregnum
between superstition and enlightenment.
What identifies Wollstonecraft’s reflections as characteristically post-
revolutionary, in spite of the fact that they make no specific reference to
recent French history, is their markedly utilitarian attitude to religion, in

 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
many ways a legacy of the Jacobin period. In May , at the height of
the Terror, Robespierre had sought to counter the demoralising effect of
the disestablishment of Roman Catholicism a couple of years before, by
proposing a new national faith – the so-called ‘Cult of the Supreme
Being’ – a form of deism strongly reminiscent of the ‘Profession de Foi
d’un Vicaire Savoyard’ contained in Book  of Emile. Like Rousseau,
Robespierre regarded a revolution in religious feeling as the necessary
sequel to the ‘materialist’ revolution which had taken place during the
Enlightenment:
Everything has changed in the physical order; everything must change in the
moral and political order. Half of the world revolution is already completed;
the other half is yet to be accomplished.2
More specifically, he also considered that a spontaneous response to
experience was more conducive to disinterested virtue than the rational
critical debate favoured by the physiocrats, and he regarded religion as
an appropriate way of encouraging this condition of mind:
The master-work of society would be to create a rapid moral instinct in [the
citizen] that will lead him to do good and to avoid evil without the slow assis-
tance of reasoning, because the private reason of a man waylaid by his passions
is often nothing but a sophist that pleads their case, and the moral authority of
a man can always be overcome by his self-love.3
However, for all the apparent fervency of these introductory remarks,
much of his proposal was decidedly functionalist in its emphasis. In the
last analysis, he recommended religious faith primarily as a means of
cementing national unity and virtue rather than as a moral end-in-itself;
indeed he was less interested in establishing the truth of faith than in
exploring its social benefits. ‘In the eyes of the legislator,’ he told the
Convention, somewhat loftily, ‘everything that is useful to the world and
good in practice is true’.4
As is well known, Rousseau had put forward a similar series of argu-
ments in favour of the principle of a civic religion in one of the most
notorious chapters of the Contrat Social. Christianity was inappropriate
for a republic, he had stated, essentially because it encouraged the
privatisation of religious feeling, thereby failing to establish the neces-
sary link between the transcendental order and the state. A national
religion would be a much better option in this respect, because it would
serve to bind the people more closely to their institutions.5 Throughout
this chapter the emphasis was very much on the social usefulness of
religion rather than its philosophical truth. And this too was
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
Robespierre’s central concern in his presentation of the Cult, as he laid
aside the expansive rhetoric of Emile in favour of the tersely
Machiavellian style of the Contrat Social, defending the dissemination of
useful fictions by referring back to the ancient legislators of the past,
most notably Socrates and Lycurgus:
I know that the wisest among them permitted themselves to supplement the
truth with certain fictions, perhaps in order to appeal to the imagination of
ignorant people, perhaps in order to attach them more strongly to their institu-
tions.6

With this in mind, it is possible to argue that memories of the repres-


sive context of the Cult of the Supreme Being, as well as its seeming bad
faith, may well have been present in Wollstonecraft’s mind when she
came to discuss ‘pious frauds’ in her Letters of . The fact remains,
however, that a contemplation of the perceived inertia of reason did lead
her to entertain – if only briefly – the notion of a careful manipulation
of public opinion through civic religion, even if she did not, in the end,
indulge it. In this way she did demonstrate a growing interest, highly
characteristic of both French and English radicals during this period, in
the concept of aesthetic education, the notion that a people might have
to be seduced to follow virtue rather than simply forced to obey it, and that
therefore a project of cultural rather than political regeneration might
offer the best means of recuperating the tarnished revolutionary ideal.
How and why such early essays in the field of post-revolutionary
aesthetics should have sought to distinguish themselves from
Robespierre’s own belated attempt to dissolve politics into culture at the
Festival of the Supreme Being of  is one of the central concerns of
this chapter; but so equally is the distinct but related question of how
radical women in particular were to approach the question of politics-
as-seduction, for it was bound to have a special piquancy for them,
caught as they were between the strong desire to exert an influence upon
the moral and political opinions of their age, and the equally powerful
anxiety of losing the very principle of rational femininity in the process
of aesthetic education.
In the eyes of many writers and thinkers of the ‘Thermidorean’
period, the Terror was to be interpreted as a misguided attempt to leg-
islate virtue into existence: hence the prime historical lesson to be learnt
from its ultimate failure was that it was disastrous to attempt the general
dissemination of republican values through the medium of pure politics.
What was required, it was argued, was a more stealthy, surreptitious
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
approach to the problem of moral regeneration, an approach that
sought to re-educate people more indirectly, by appealing to them at the
level of culture. Surprisingly, perhaps, in this context, especially given his
reputation as the intellectual father of French Jacobinism, Rousseau –
‘the Prometheus of Sentiment’ as the character of Maria in
Wollstonecraft’s Wrongs of Woman was later to describe him – remained
an important figure for the leading cultural theorists of the revolution-
ary decade, primarily because of his extensive exploration of the rela-
tion of religion to politics and of politics to aesthetics. Of course, writers
such as Friedrich Schiller and Germaine de Staël were highly aware that
his political theory was widely deemed to have ‘caused’ the worst
excesses of the Revolution, but that did not prevent them from continu-
ing to admire his work, for in spite of its associations with the politics of
Robespierre, it still seemed to offer a series of templates within which the
‘beau idéal’ of  could be re-imagined and re-articulated. Thus it was
with constant reference to works such as the La Nouvelle Heloïse, a work
which offered a very different version of the Rousseauvian vision of
social transparency from that which was contained in the Contrat Social,
that writers such as Schiller and de Staël tried to recuperate the educa-
tional project of revolutionary republicanism in the s.
The first half of this chapter, then, will seek to locate the origin of this
growing interest in aesthetic education in the educational debates of the
French Revolution, in an attempt to demonstrate the points of contact
between Rousseauvian aesthetics, Robespierrist politics and post-revo-
lutionary cultural theory. And the second half will address the highly
complex attitudes exhibited by a number of eminent women radicals of
the period to Rousseau’s theories of aesthetic education. In its most doc-
trinal form, Rousseauvian Jacobinism was a highly misogynistic creed.
Going against the grain of the French feminist tradition initiated by
Helvétius and carried on by Condorcet, both the Contrat Social and Emile
had advocated a high degree of separation between men and women,
prescribing a public life on the classical model for the men of his repub-
lic, while consigning women to a life of privacy, domesticity and intel-
lectual subservience. With this in mind, this section is devoted to
exploring the relationship between Rousseau and some of his radical
female commentators – eminent figures such as Wollstonecraft, Helen
Maria Williams, de Staël and Madame Roland – attempting to square
their often fervent interest in his fictional and confessional writings with
their notably sceptical attitude to his political theory. Primarily, I shall
seek to do this by comparing Wollstonecraft’s post-revolutionary writing
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
with a number of French ‘radical’ texts of the late s, works by
Condorcet, de Staël, Louvet and Roland, interpreting the English
writer’s shift from political commentary to autobiography in the Letters
of  very much in terms of a deliberate attempt – ‘self-conscious’ in
the fullest, most Promethean sense – to wrest meaning and value from
the unaccountable chaos of revolutionary history.


In recent times, a new wave of cultural historians – most notably Mona
Ozouf, Lynn Hunt and Dorinda Outram – have contibuted greatly to
our understanding of the Revolution by exploring the way in which the
leading statesmen of the period tried to develop a unified political
culture out of the popular traditions and neo-classical paradigms of the
past.7 But their emphasis upon the Revolution as a coherent project of
public education has often led them to neglect the philosophical and
political divisions which fissured the revolutionary bourgeoisie. In this
section, therefore, I want to restore a sense of ideological conflict to the
discussion of revolutionary culture by comparing the ‘Girondin’ and
‘Jacobin’ attitudes to education.
As many historians have pointed out, the project of education was
central to the French Revolution: from the very beginning the political
class recognised that in order for France to pass successfully from one
régime into another, the French people would have to undergo a process
of political instruction, so that they might come to understand their
changed relationship to the state, government and the rule of law.8 And
as we have seen, the political message that was given out by the new
order was initially very confused, a curious blend of old and new politi-
cal languages, a dangerous mixture of ci-devant monarchism, modern
liberalism and ancient republicanism. Substantially, this did not really
change much with time: the Revolution was to remain riven by compet-
ing principles and contradictory aims. On occasion, however, a political
discourse would succeed in differentiating itself from its rivals, express-
ing itself in a relatively pure form. And the field of educational theory
can furnish us with two very good examples of this, each implacably
antagonistic to the other.
Despite the Revolution’s professed interest in the broad concept of
education, it was notably unsuccessful in its attempt to revolutionise
practical schooling.9 Indeed it was not until after the fall of Robespierre
that a bill was finally passed setting out the terms for the instruction of
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
French citizens under the First Republic. Previous to this, however, a
couple of abortive attempts had been made to provide a basis for school
legislation – the liberal bourgeois programme of ‘instruction’ developed
by Condorcet in  and the Rousseauvian model of public ‘education’
proposed by Robespierre in  – attempts which should be interesting
to us precisely because they were at once both identifiably ‘revolution-
ary’ and yet systematically opposed. Subsequent bills, by incorporating
some of the former’s proposals and blending them with those of the
latter, gradually established a workable system which was to survive well
into the twentieth century, but they did so by obscuring rather than
resolving the fundamental tension between them. It is worthwhile, there-
fore, to give a brief outline of these two abandoned bills, in an attempt
to show how and why an identifiably ‘progressive’ notion of state
instruction gave birth to its ‘primitivist’ (although no less ‘modern’)
negation.
The eminent mathematician Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet was one
of the foremost liberal thinkers of the late eighteenth century. During
the Revolution he was to play a central role, as a constitutional theorist,
as a feminist, and as the philosophical mentor of the Girondin faction.
The central argument of his posthumous Esquisse d’un tableau historique du
progrès de l’esprit humain () was that the steady improvement of human
knowledge would gradually help to solve all of the world’s major prob-
lems. An inspiration to nineteenth-century philosophical reformers, it
provided the link between the intellectual traditions of the French
enlightenment and the new social science, bridging the gap between
philosophie, idéologie and English utilitarianism.10 Moreover, in his pam-
phlet On Public Instruction, which was published in , Condorcet was to
make a major contribution to the revolutionary debate on education,
rehearsing the physiocratic argument that the state had a duty to provide
each citizen – young women as well as young men – with public instruc-
tion. Placing great emphasis upon early vocational training, he argued
that if young people were encouraged to follow a trade at school, huge
social advantages would inevitably ensue. For when the time came for
them to enter the world of work, the various trades and professions
would receive already trained apprentices, which would benefit trade
and commerce by rendering it more efficient, while also depriving the
guilds of their skills monopoly. Issues such as this were always more
important, in Condorcet’s mind, than the question of whether early
specialisation would tend to imprison children within the confines of
their class, mainly because, for him as for Emmanuel Sieyès, the progress
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
of freedom was always conceived in terms of the destruction of corpo-
rate privilege.
According to Condorcet the role of public authority was to make
existing forms of knowledge available to the people, not to tell them
how to live: ‘public authority ought to limit itself to organising instruc-
tion,’ he wrote, ‘leaving the rest of a child’s education to his family . . .
the duty of public authority is to arm the full force of truth against
error, which is always a public evil. But it does not have the right to
decide where truth or error is to be found’.11 The responsibility for
moral and religious education was thus consigned to the private
sphere, while the task of organising instruction was kept in the realm
of the public; indeed the social benefit of public schooling was to rest
upon its very refusal to decide what was beneficial, its self-conscious
open-mindedness rendering it a powerful force for improvement. In
this way instruction was made to seem as if it were ideologically and
morally neutral, simply the dissemination of useful information. But of
course Condorcet’s model of public instruction was not nearly as ideo-
logically neutral as it would have liked to pretend. Ostensibly it seemed
to have no preferences, but quietly it served to grease the wheels of
commerce–capitalism by transforming the human subject into an
individuated commodity ready to take his or her place in the adult
labour market.
To some degree, however, Condorcet did attempt to anticipate this
objection, insisting that his programme of instruction was actually
designed to offset the noxious side-effects of modern commercial society,
rather than compound them. The best way, according to him, of mini-
mising the damage caused by the division of labour in civil life was to
make the individual aware of his place in the social machine. In this way
one of the main purposes of his scheme of public education was to offer
greater intellectual equality as a consolation for the lack of social equal-
ity (), considering that if the poorer members of society were to
receive proper instruction they would become immune to both the
dangerous provocations of sans-culottisme and the false consolations of
religion. They would realise that society could only be improved by
scientific progress, and this in turn would encourage them to contem-
plate the progress of the human race both in the past and in the future,
a vision which would render them patient and philosophical in the face
of present adversity, offering both an impulse to political virtue and a
secular vision of immortality:
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
If this indefinite improvement of our species is a general law of nature, as I
believe, man must no longer consider himself as being bound to a fleeting and
isolated existence, destined to vanish after an alternation of happiness and
sorrow for himself, of good and evil for those whom chance has made his neigh-
bours. He becomes an active part of a great whole, a co-worker in an eternal
creation. In a momentary existence in a speck of space, he can by his efforts
encompass all places, bind himself to all centuries, and still act long after his
memories have disappeared from the earth. ()
As in Immmanuel Kant’s celebrated pamphlet What Is Enlightenment?
the separation of the private realm of labour from the public realm of
critical thought was seen by Condorcet as positive and enabling. His
idea was that by contemplating his existence as a mere cog in the
machine of human progress the individual would be able to draw
enough intellectual satisfaction and spiritual sustenance to cope with
the inevitable constraints upon his physical existence. As he argued in
his posthumous treatise the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de
l’esprit humain of  ‘the whole system of human labour is like a well-
made machine, whose several parts have been systematically dis-
tinguished but nonetheless being intimately bound together, form a
single whole and work toward a single end’.12 For a later generation of
philosophers, who had lived through the first phase of mechanical
progress, it was far more difficult to be so unequivocally enthusiastic
about the effects of commerce and industry. Thomas Carlyle’s suspicion
was that the endless pursuit of higher levels of production was radically
devoid of any identifiable goal, that machinery had, in every sense of
the word, no end.13 For Condorcet, however, the vision of society as a
machine rendered everything significant and full of purpose, and that
was why it was important for this vision to be disseminated as widely as
possible. For significantly enough he feared that without a system of
public instruction to inform men and women of its benefits, the
progress of enlightenment might appear unequal and unjust. Indeed he
even expressed an anxiety that without such general tuition, it might
actually become so:
The revolutions brought about by the general advance of the human race
towards perfection must certainly lead to reason and happiness. But how many
passing misfortunes would be necessary to pay for it, if general instruction did
not draw men closer together? How far would that epoch recede if the progress
of an enlightenment that was never equally distributed fed an eternal war of
greed and treachery among nations, as among the various classes within them,
rather than uniting them in that fraternal exchange of needs and services that
is the foundation of common happiness.14
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
Of course, for the ‘primitivists’ in the Jacobin movement, the project
of enlightenment favoured by Condorcet did feed an eternal war of
greed and treachery precisely because it was so closely tied to the
development of commerce and industry. In their eyes, rationality was
just another word for bourgeois self-interest. Occurrences such as the
alleged food hoarding by bourgeois négociants during the subsistence crisis
of  had convinced them that the modern system of commerce was
not a fraternal exchange but a fratricidal struggle. Hence they mistrusted
any model of public instruction which placed an emphasis upon politi-
cal economy, considering it a form of counter-revolutionary sophistry
designed to enslave rather than enlighten the people. In the speech on
the Cult of the Supreme Being of  Robespierre was to argue that
during the early years of the Revolution the common people of France
had possessed a firm understanding of liberty and equality, until
Condorcet had sought to deliver them back into the hands of the aris-
tocracy with his obscurantist sophistries, and it is likely that he had the
latter’s pamphlet Sur l’Instruction Publique as well as his constitutional writ-
ings uppermost in his mind:
Artisans had shown themselves perfectly able to understand the rights of man,
when this scribbler, who had almost been a republican in , stupidly
defended the cause of kings in . Labourers were relaying the light of phi-
losophy all over the countryside, when the academician Condorcet, formerly a
great mathematician in the judgment of the literary, and a great belletrist in the
judgment of mathematicians, later a timid conspirator, despised by both parties,
was working ceaselessly to obscure it by the treacherous hotchpotch of his
mercenary rhapsodies.15
In order to explore this antagonism further, and to relate it to the deep
ideological fissure at the heart of French Jacobinism, I now want to
argue that the model of public education that Robespierre developed in
 can be seen as a deliberate attempt to oppose what he perceived as
the alienating effect of Condorcet’s plan of liberal instruction.
The educational plan of Louis le Peletier, which had been abandoned
unfinished at the latter’s death in February , and then subsequently
revised and presented to the National Convention by Robespierre in July
of the same year, constituted an unashamedly Jacobin response to the
instructional theories of Condorcet, much more evidently neo-Spartan
in inspiration, and markedly less proto-feminist in emphasis. The
purpose of a republican school system, in Robespierre’s eyes, was to
condition and shape the moral character of the citizen: ‘I am con-
vinced’, he remarked, when presenting the paper, ‘of the necessity of
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
carrying out a complete regeneration, and, if I may express myself thus,
of creating a new people.’16 Where Condorcet had wanted to promote
equality of opportunity, Robespierre offered equality of experience.
Where the scheme of the former had been designed to encourage chil-
dren to cultivate specific skills in preparation for their entry into a
diversified labour market, that of the latter placed more of an emphasis
upon physical and moral virtue.
To regulate one’s life, to submit to the yoke of an exact discipline, these are two
habits that are important to the happiness of social existence. They must com-
mence in childhood; acquired at that age, they become a second nature.17
Le Peletier had argued that both girls and boys should be trained to
work the land, explaining that ‘it is the first, it is the most necessary, it is
the most widespread occupation of man, moreover, it gives us all our
bread.’18 His plan encouraged various forms of collective activity, the
idea being that the sharing of common experiences would lead the citi-
zenry to develop common opinions, and that these opinions would
inevitably be collectivist. In this way, republican values would be dis-
seminated uniformly across every rank and region of society. There was
another reason, however, for Le Peletier’s emphasis on physical work: in
his eyes, it was also a way of keeping children out of trouble when they
were not attending lessons. Instruction, he argued, although useful in
many ways, did not however attend to the ‘moral being’ of the individ-
ual, and this meant that, once out of the classroom, children were always
likely to relapse into bad habits:
As for the moral being, some useful instruction, some study periods, this is the
narrow circle within which the proposed plan is contained. It is the work of a
few hours only; but the rest of the day is abandoned to the hazard of circum-
stances, and the child, when the lesson is over, soon finds himself returning
back, perhaps to the softness of luxury, perhaps to the pride of vanity, perhaps
to the uncouthness of poverty, perhaps to the indiscretions of boredom.
Unhappy victim of vices, errors, misfortune, of curiosity regarding the things
around him, he will be a little less ignorant than before, the schools will be a bit
more numerous, the school-masters slightly better than today; but shall we
really have formed men, citizens, republicans; in a word, shall the nation have
been regenerated?19
In Le Peletier’s, public education would not be doing its job unless it
undertook to police every child constantly, for it was always to be sus-
pected that as soon as a boy or girl escaped from the open field of the
public gaze, he or she would soon sink into ‘aristocratic’ sloth and
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
depravity. Not content that the education system should inculcate the
traditional responsibilities of gender and profession, he demanded that
it should completely control the individual’s moral environment.20 Thus
he demanded the kind of perpetual vigilance from the state system that
the précepteur had exerted upon the hapless Emile in Rousseau’s famous
treatise. And so, in the acute ideological severity of this bill the deep
structure of Rousseauvian Jacobinism can be seen to emerge:
Robespierre’s fundamental attitude not only to the instruction of chil-
dren, but to that of the citizenry as a whole, stands revealed, most
notably his fear that nothing less than a total cultural training would
effect the re-education of the French people.
Of course, Robespierre was forced to recognise that while children
could be subjected to constant supervision until such time as they could
regulate themselves and each other, it was not possible for the state to
exert such a constant system of surveillance upon the contemporary
adult population – frustratingly enough, the very section of the com-
munity who most required reform. So he was increasingly driven to seek
civic unity through the manipulation of aesthetic effects, to encourage
forms of collective activity in which everyone might discover a sense of
their new identity while learning to police the recalcitrant behaviour of
everyone else. And this was one of the reasons why the concept of the
festival became such an important part of his project to educate a new
generation of French republicans: it was a way of forcing the people of
France back to school. Thus it is not necessary to regard the Festival of
the Supreme Being, as many commentators have tended to do, simply
as a product of Robespierre’s vain ambition to become the high priest
of the Revolution, but rather as a logical consequence of the political
aesthetic bequeathed to him by Rousseau, which taught that virtue could
neither be taught by a process of rational instruction, nor simply
imposed by force. As Jürgen Habermas has pointed out, ‘since [the
Rousseauvian legislator] could rely neither on force nor on public dis-
cussion . . . he had to take refuge in the authority of an indirect influence,
“which can compel without violence and persuade without convinc-
ing”’. It was not surprising, therefore, that from  onwards
Robespierre himself was increasingly drawn to the concept of aesthetic
education, since even in the pages of the Contrat Social ‘Rousseau’s
democracy of unpublic opinion ultimately postulated the manipulative
exercise of power.’21
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism


Plant a pole crowned with flowers in the middle of a square, assemble the
people, and you will have a festival. Even better: put the spectators into the
show; make them actors themselves; contrive it that everyone sees and adores
themselves in others, and everyone will be bound together as never before.22
This was the recipe for a rural festival that Rousseau had given in his
Lettre à d’Alembert of . His central argument in the treatise was that
the theatre was a corrupt form of entertainment on account of the dis-
tinction it made between those who acted and those who watched, since
in his opinion this perpetuated aristocratic notions of publicity, accord-
ing a representative publicness to certain privileged persons, and con-
signing the rest of the population to private obscurity. As Goethe’s
Wilhelm Meister put it: ‘On the boards a polished man appears in his
splendour with personal accomplishments, just as he does in the upper
classes of society’.23 For Rousseau the public aura of the aristocracy, like
that of theatrical actors, was based on an imposture, so that to be enam-
oured of the theatre was, in a certain sense, to be in love with one’s own
slavery, since the stage was merely a reproduction of the deceptions and
divisions of feudal society. The festival, on the other hand, was a form
of spectacle peculiarly appropriate to a republic, for it obliterated the
pernicious obstacle at the heart of theatrical representation in render-
ing each participant simultaneously an actor and a spectator. At a festi-
val, according to Rousseau, every man and woman ceased to be a private
person and was encouraged to identify with the collective. By bridging
the gap between being and seeing, it transcended the imposture at the
heart of all representation, effecting the embodiment of a unified
general will, or as Jean Starobinski has interpreted it, bringing about a
situation in which ‘each individual is alienated by the gaze of others, and
everyone is returned to themselves by a universal recognition’.24
Despite its popularity in the middle of the eighteenth century, few
revolutionaries referred to the Lettre à d’Alembert in their discussion of
republican festivals. More often they drew on the description of a Swiss
wine harvest in Rousseau’s novel La Nouvelle Heloïse () in which many
of the same arguments had been rehearsed in fictional form. In this fes-
tival the entire community of the Swiss village of Clarens, peasants and
nobles alike, take part in the grape harvest, with all class differences tem-
porarily laid aside. Significantly, Rousseau represents this event as a
utopian moment out of time, an experience of pure transparency in
which individual desire is sublimated into general benevolence.
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
Moreover, it is also depicted as an event which is at one and the same
time both useful and enjoyable, fruitful and yet frugal, and thus the
model for a new kind of political economy – rationally organised and
yet anti-capitalist – in which the distinction between work and leisure has
effectively been dissolved. As the novel’s protagonist Saint-Preux reports
to his English friend Lord Bomston:
Everyone sings, everyone laughs all day long, and yet work does not suffer.
Everyone lives in the greatest possible familiarity with one another; everyone is
equal, and nobody forgets themselves . . . One dines with the peasants at their
accustomed hour, just as one works with them . . . The sweet equality that reigns
here re-establishes the order of nature, it forms an instruction for some and a
consolation for others, and a link of friendship for all.25

However, all is not quite as idyllic – or as effortless – as it seems. For


example, we are told early on that Baron de Wolmar, the benevolent dic-
tator of Clarens, has made a great number of preparations in advance
of the harvest, preparations designed to manipulate and police the activ-
ities of his band of workers. And he bears a close resemblance to the
Rousseauvian legislator of the Contrat Social in this respect, combining a
fervent commitment to strong government with an atheist’s belief in the
social utility of a collective faith, as is evident from the way in which he
uses his wife, the passionate and conscientious Julie, as a kind of
beneficent civic deity, before whose altar the rest of the community,
including Saint-Preux, is only too willing to kneel:
Julie! Incomparable woman! You exercise in the simplicity of your private life
a despotic empire of wisdom and beneficence: you are for the entire region a
dear and sacred despot that everyone would wish to defend and preserve with
their life, and you live more securely, and more honorably in the middle of an
entire people whom you love, than kings who are surrounded with all their sol-
diers.26
One of the most popular works of fiction published during the eight-
eenth century, La Nouvelle Heloïse was rapidly translated into many
different languages after its first appearance in . As Robert Darnton
has shown, its highly direct and emotive style inspired countless readers
to seek to emulate the sentiments of its central characters.27 But what is
less often commented upon is the fact that it was also seen as a blueprint
for the institution of a virtuous republic.28 For in the eyes of many the
Clarens section of the novel offered a more attractive utopian vision
than the Contrat Social, and what was more, it actually suggested ways in
which such a vision might be brought into being, containing a number
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
of detailed descriptions of civic organisation and household and garden
management, which helped to provide a cogent vision of the way in
which a particular version of republicanism might work itself out in
practice.


The Festival of the Supreme Being finally took place on  June ,
under the artistic direction of the fervently Robespierrist revolutionary
painter and designer Jacques-Louis David. As befitted a nation at war, it
contained a considerable element of military display. Nevertheless, that
did not prevent it from possessing a decidedly pastoral tone in compari-
son with previous revolutionary fêtes, such as the Festival of Reason of
. After a speech given by Robespierre outside the Tuileries palace,
there was a vast procession to the Champ de Mars, led by a huge chariot,
towed by rows of oxen, containing many sheaves of corn and numerous
agricultural implements, with a statue representing natural abundance
enthroned at its head. At the Champ de Mars a tall tree spread its
boughs over the summit of a huge, artificially constructed Mountain.
On their arrival, the deputies of the National Convention sat down
beneath the leaves of this overarching tree of liberty, surrounded by
groups of little boys with garlands of violets on their heads, by young
men with wreaths of myrtle, and by older men wearing oak, ivy and olive
leaves. Strictly patriotic throughout, and full of references to the natural
and political virtues of France, the iconography of the festival was nev-
ertheless highly reminiscent of the Swiss fête in Rousseau’s Julie, not
merely because of its emphasis upon harvest, but also because of its
highly significant use of the symbolism of the Mountain, a broad refer-
ence to the grand tradition of Alpine simplicity as much as an explicit
allusion to the political ‘Montagne’ which formed the radical wing of the
National Convention.29
Conceived at a time of increasing political anxiety, when many
revolutionaries wanted to see an end to the Terror but were unsure about
how to bring it about, the Festival of the Supreme Being was in many
ways the fullest and most desperate expression of Robespierre’s utopian
imagination, his final attempt to define and disseminate his vision of the
future. And the fact that it drew so slavishly on Rousseau’s work, and
most especially on the Emile and La Nouvelle Heloïse, does much to explain
not only its comparatively doctrinaire character, but also its conspicu-
ously ‘sentimental’ appeal. So much so, indeed, that it has been sug-
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
gested that the reason why Saint-Just chose not to attend was because
the programme of the festival was not neo-classical enough for his tastes;
whatever republican feeling it sought to evoke had been thoroughly
filtered through Jean-Jacques Rousseau.30
One of the facets which may have rendered Rousseau’s description of
the wine-harvest especially useful to Robespierre and David was its
detailed account of the actual organisation of the fête at Clarens; its
concern for the fine points of administrative detail. In his narration of
the event to Lord Bomston, Saint-Preux spent a lot of time enthusing
about the way in which the harvest harmonised the aristocracy and the
peasantry, work and play, but he also could not help noticing the way in
which the whole spectacle was carefully stage-managed by Julie’s
husband, the atheist philosopher Baron de Wolmar. For example, he tells
us that for the duration of the evening reception which succeeded the
day’s work, the appearance of equality was very carefully arranged: ‘In
order to prevent envy and regret’, he notes, ‘one endeavours not to put
out before the eyes of these good people anything that they could not
find in their own homes.’ But there were also other, and more insidious
ways in which the festival constituted an extensive exercise in social
manipulation, as he slowly began to discern. In the first place, through-
out the day, Wolmar effectively operates a proto-Benthamite system of
surveillance, policing proceedings and administering justice. He rewards
the hardest workers, but ruthlessly punishes irregular behaviour:
One drinks with discretion, liberty has no other limits than those of decency.
The presence of such respected masters restrains everybody, without preventing
them from being easy and gay. If someone does happen to forget himself, one
does not disturb the festival with reprimands; but he is discharged without fail
the following day.31

Above and beyond this, however, the reader is increasingly made


aware, through Saint-Preux’s hints and guesses, of the extent to which it
is not merely drunkenness and bad behaviour that the administration at
Clarens is seeking to root out, but private sentiments or reflections of any
kind. The narrator himself almost falls victim to this purgative impulse
when he falls into a drunken melancholy when gazing upon Julie at
dinner, and yet even her frowns of disapproval cannot quite dispel his
uncontrollable feelings of remorse: ‘Then, in letting my eyes rest upon
her and recalling distant times, I am taken over by a sudden shudder, and
an insupportable weight falls upon my heart, leaving me with a grievous
impression that is only painfully effaced.’32
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
In passages such as this, the novel exhibits a deep sensitivity, far
greater than anything in the Contrat Social, to the destructive effect of a
war on private sentiments. In the Contrat Social the pursuit of civic virtue
was always defined in terms of the individual’s internal struggle between
his own national and personal allegiances. But in La Nouvelle Heloïse
however, much greater stress was placed on the broader implications of
this putative Kulturkampf – the process was always seen in an identifiably
social context. And throughout the earlier work, Rousseau exhibited an
irresolvably ambivalent attitude to this question. For even if in many
ways his sketching of Wolmar’s Clarens does look eagerly forward to the
utopian imaginings of the Lettre á d’Alembert and the Contrat Social, his con-
tinued sympathy for the character of Saint-Preux, who always stands in
an uncomfortable relation to the utopian arrangements, can already be
seen to anticipate the many heartfelt descriptions of exclusion and alien-
ation that one finds in the Reveries and the Confessions. In his later politi-
cal theory it is true that Rousseau became extremely keen to recommend
the manipulative use of power by a ‘benevolent’ legislator; but in the
pages of Julie he was by no means averse to exploring what it would feel
like to be a victim of such manipulation.
Of all the accounts of the Festival of the Supreme Being, perhaps the
most influential, at least in Britain, was the one given by the English poet
and Girondin sympathiser Helen Maria Williams in her Memoirs of the
Reign of Robespierre of . Writing, like the Rousseau of Julie, in the
persona of the sentimental letter-writer, Williams was to reproduce the
central facets of Saint-Preux’s festival critique in her extensive attack
upon the coerciveness and hidden cruelty of Robespierre’s utopian
pageant. She made much of the rather mechanical nature of the cere-
mony, as if to highlight the extent to which Jacobin politics represented
nothing but a kind of lifeless simulation of true republican feeling: ‘At
this spot’, she wrote sarcastically, ‘by David’s command, the mothers are
to embrace their daughters; at that, the fathers are to clasp their sons;
here the old are to bless the young; there the young are to kneel to the
old; upon this boulevard the people are to sing; upon that, they must
dance; at noon they must listen in silence, and at sunset they must rend
the air with acclamations.’33 Many modern commentators have tended
to agree with the criticism implict in Williams’ analysis. Mona Ozouf, for
example, in her influential book on the Revolutionary fêtes, was to make
the general point that ‘utopian festivals always have that air of order and
regulation that begins by discouraging fantasy and ends by punishing
it’.34 For Williams, all of the charges which Rousseau had brought
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
against the theatre applied with increased force to Robespierre’s festival,
which offered itself as the very antithesis of hatred and bloodshed, but
which had terrorist principles inscribed at its very heart. And it was the
perfect symbol of the reign of Robespierre in this respect, in the sense
that behind its rhetoric of transparency there lay concealed a despotic
will to power: ‘the glowing festoons appeared tinged with blood’, she
wrote, ‘and in the background of this festive scenery, the guillotine rose
above the disturbed imagination’. At the centre of Williams’s account
was the representation of Robespierre as a kind of political Tartuffe, a
‘foul fiend’ who was using the mask of political sanctity to disguise his
base longings. Not content to be the Cato of the Revolution, he was
aspiring to become its Savonarola:
Upon a tribune in the centre of the theatre, Robespierre, as president of the
Convention, appeared, and having for a few hours disencumbered the square
of the Revolution of the guillotine, this high priest of Moloch, within view of
that very spot where his daily sacrifice of human victims was offered up, covered
with their own blood, invoked the Parent of universal nature, talked of the
charms of virtue, and breathed the hope of immortality.
In this remarkably vivid version of events, the figure of Robespierre
as a Machiavellian legislator is given great prominence. Like Wolmar he
is depicted as a coldly detached figure, an atheist seeking to use religion
for his own ends, standing at some distance from the illusory spectacle
he has seen fit to encourage. On countless occasions during the
Romantic period, this interpretation was rehearsed and reformulated,
both in historical accounts of the Revolution, and in the realm of liter-
ary fiction. One specific detail of Robespierre’s performance at the fête
was often reworked in later renderings. After having given his speech at
the Tuileries, he had descended from the tribune, ‘armed with the flame
of truth’, as David’s programme note has it, and moved towards a
monument raised on a circular basin, representing the monster
‘L’athéisme’. And from the middle of this monster, which he proceeded
to set on fire, the figure of ‘Sagesse’ was supposed to appear.
Unfortunately, when it did emerge from beneath the flames, the figure
of ‘Sagesse’ was hopelessly blackened and scarred, a powerful sign, in
the eyes of many later commentators, of the rotten and misguided
nature of Robespierre’s political wisdom, as well as a potent symbol of
the ugly visage which lay behind his ‘mask’ of virtue. Sometimes this
trope operated at quite a simple level, as in Lacretelle’s Précis historique,
where it was used to represent Robespierre as the arch-hypocrite of
revolutionary politics, or in Tom Moore’s orientalist fantasy, ‘The Veiled
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Prophet of Khorassan’ (a kind of displaced allegory of the Jacobinism
of the s), in which the seemingly virtuous leader of a revolutionary
Moslem sect is both literally and symbolically unmasked, at the very
height of some wild festivities, as a mendacious and murderous fraud.
In other representations, however, the central significance of the fes-
tival was interpreted in much broader terms, with its rather mechanical
simulation of popular unity and fellow feelings being seen as the abolute
death-knell of the revolutionary project of régéneration. In several
accounts the apparent lack of vitality in Robespierre’s personal
demeanour became a metonym for the lifelessness of French society
under the Jacobins. Thus the great nineteenth-century historian Jules
Michelet, in the midst of an account of the Jacobin period that was in
other respects not entirely unsympathetic to Robespierre’s tragic pre-
dicament, described David’s commemorative sketch of Robespierre at
the festival as ‘like a cat drowned long ago, and reanimated by galvan-
ism, or perhaps like a reptile which stiffens as it raises itself up, with an
unspeakable look, of terrifying civility’.35 In Michelet’s mind, the festi-
val dramatised not only Robespierre’s political mendacity but also the
dreadful gap between his apparent commitment to a politics of freedom
and the will and his actual enslavement to the forces of historical neces-
sity: ‘The Moral Authority, by which I mean Robespierre, this censor,
this purger, this saviour, this messiah, who was summoned to save society,
was more than anyone the slave of the Terror. He seemed its master. The
horror of his double role struck him more and more’.36 And of course,
one way of thinking about this ‘double role’ – Robespierre’s status as
both the avenging angel and the abject automaton of history – is to re-
emphasise the way in which it arose out of his own paradoxical attempt
to pursue ‘primitive’ virtue by ‘progressive’ means, to employ the
increasingly mechanistic structures of modern bourgeois society –
representative democracy, the press, the law, the guillotine – in order to
rediscover the principle of ancient freedom, a violent rejection of
modernity that was at one and the same time hopelessly dependent upon
its forms. And it was this that rendered him at once the Julie and the
Wolmar of the fête, hence one should not think of the hastily con-
structed figure of the Mountain erected on the open plain of the Champ
de Mars simply as a piece of political hypocrisy, a deliberate attempt to
disguise the bare and unfeeling scaffolding of modern government,
without equal consideration of the extent to which it was also an hysteri-
cal replacement of the guillotine, a form of violently overdetermined
denial.
. ‘Festival of the Supreme Being on the Champ de Mars’ (), watercolour by Naudet. ‘At the Champ de Mars a tall tree spread its
boughs over the summit of a huge, artificially constructed Mountain. On their arrival, the deputies of the National Convention sat down
beneath the leaves of this overarching tree of liberty, surrounded by groups of little boys with garlands of violets on their heads, by young
men with wreaths of myrtle, and by older men wearing oak, ivy and olive leaves.’
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism


Over the last fifteen years, a significant amount of scholarly work has
successfully shown that far from being the founding text of Anglo-
American feminism that it had long been considered, Mary
Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman of  actually
emerged out of a long tradition of eighteenth-century feminist writing,
rehearsing arguments that had already been mooted much earlier by
figures such as Mary Astell and Mary Wortley Montagu.37 Nevertheless,
as has readily been acknowledged, what was distinctive about
Wollstonecraft’s treatise was the extent to which it latched onto the terms
of the political debate that was raging in England and France at the time
of its initial composition. As a number of recent critical studies have
shown, the early years of the Revolution had seen the development of
an energetic campaign in favour of political rights for women. So much
so, indeed, that until the Jacobin backlash of –, French feminists
such as Olympe de Gouges had been able to give a considerable public
profile to this cause.38 And their opinions had been shared by some of
the more progressive male philosophers of the period, most notably
Antoine-Nicholas de Condorcet, who had argued that since women
were as capable as men of acquiring and employing the faculty of
reason, they should undoubtedly possess the same civic rights.39
Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman was thus very much a
product of the legislative moment of –, sharing much of the ration-
al confidence of Condorcet and Tom Paine, despite the fact that the
period of its composition coincided with the appearance of the French
Constitution of , which effectively excluded all women from citizen-
ship.40
Outspokenly progressive in her views, Wollstonecraft was extremely
dismissive of the neo-Spartan current of revolutionary politics, and
indignant at the attitude to women that it entailed. It was highly
appropriate, therefore, that of all the male theorists of female education
who came under attack in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Rousseau
was the one who most excited her indignation.41 In the fifth book of his
treatise Emile, ou l’éducation of  Rousseau had argued that young men
should be trained for a life of independent action and public virtue,
while young girls ought merely to be prepared for their future role as
wives and mothers. In a notorious piece of double-dealing, he had
insisted upon the absolute duty of women to defer to their fathers and
husbands on all matters of importance, while arguing that this would not
. ‘View of the Chariot of the Festival of the Supreme Being’ (), anonymous engraving. ‘After a speech given by Robespierre outside
the Tuileries palace, there was a vast procession to the Champ de Mars, led by a huge chariot, towed by rows of oxen, containing many
sheaves of corn and numerous agricultural implements, with a statue representing natural abundance enthroned at its head.’
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
prevent them from getting their own way in much of their daily life if
they made proper use of their ‘amiable weaknesses’. In the Vindication
Wollstonecraft described this division of sexual labour as a ‘philosophy
of lasciviousness’. She denied that women were less capable than men
of following the dictates of reason and virtue, suggesting that it had
merely come to seem that way because of the corrupt state of female
education. Young girls were taught to cultivate their sensitivities in order
to be more attractive to men, and this meant that many women reached
adulthood suffused with a highly debilitating romantic sensibility. And
contemporary novels, such as Rousseau’s own Julie had played an espe-
cially pernicious part in this process, by encouraging young women to
envelop themselves in a tissue of deceitful dreams and fantasies, dis-
tracting themselves from their actual servitude. In order to remedy this,
therefore, Wollstonecraft proposed a radical revolution in educational
practice, suggesting that if boys and girls were treated more equally,
women would be able to pursue the same robust occupations and culti-
vate the same virtuous aspirations as their male counterparts.
One of the most curious aspects of Wollstonecraft’s position was that
in the first years of the French Revolution she had been an enthusiastic
admirer of Rousseau’s work. In the Analytical Review for  she had
defended the Confessions from the charge of immorality by arguing that
it was both rationally instructive and emotionally improving. Not only
had Rousseau made a valuable contribution to the history of the human
mind, she argued, but it was ultimately impossible, despite all of his
errors, not to identify with the warm effusions of his heart.42 However,
as we have seen, during the legislative moment of – Wollstonecraft
became an increasingly enthusiastic devotee of the discourse of rational
perfectibility, and this encouraged the self-consciously progressive reap-
praisal of Rousseau contained in the Vindication. Reworking her former
emphasis, she depicted his character as an unstable compound of ideal-
ism and sensuality, a volatile mixture which it had been the task of his
work both to offset and to justify, and which helped explain his constant
alternation between visions of public virtue and celebrations of private
appetite. According to this view of things, Jean-Jacques came to be seen
as a prime example of the same corrupt femininity that Rousseau
himself had attempted to segregate and control.
The vision of social and political progress which was laid out in the
Vindication had clear affinities with that put forward in Condorcet’s pam-
phlet On Public Instruction published the previous year. And it is highly
likely that Wollstonecraft sought out its author when she was introduced
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
to the leading members of the Girondin faction during her residence in
France in –.43 But her acquaintance could only have lasted a few
months, for in the summer of  the Jacobin party were to call for the
arrest of twenty-two of the leading Girondins, and many of
Wollstonecraft’s new friends were immediately imprisoned or sent into
hiding. In response to this predicament, figures such as Jacques-Pierrre
Brissot, Manon Roland, Jean-Baptiste Louvet and Helen Maria
Williams set about writing Rousseauvian confessions to justify their
political conduct. Of their number, Condorcet alone refused to adopt a
merely personal perspective, embarking instead upon his Esquisse d’un
tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain in an attempt to reaffirm the
revolutionary project of social perfectibility.
In many ways, Condorcet’s resolutely ‘progressive’ influence can be
seen to have had a palpable effect on Wollstonecraft’s Historical and Moral
View of the French Revolution of , for in the course of this work, she too
tried to take a broad view of revolutionary history, subsuming the birth
pangs of the new nation into a broader narrative of historical progress:
‘It is perhaps difficult to bring ourselves to believe that out of this chaotic
mass a fairer government is rising than has ever shed the sweets of social
life upon the world,’ she declared, ‘but things must have time to find their
own level’.44 Addressing the failure of the legislative phase of the French
Revolution, she blamed the peculiar mixture of idealism and depravity
in the French people, describing the national character as if it was
merely that of Rousseau writ large: ‘unmindful of the dreadful effects
beginning to flow from an unbounded licentiousness,’ she argued, ‘[the
Constituent Assembly] continued to pursue a romantic sublimity of
character, dangerous to all sublunary laws’ (, ). Instead of being
patient and gradual in their emphasis, the French had been volatile and
preremptory; instead of trusting to the gradual progress of reason, they
had sought to establish a republic of virtue all at once. Like Condorcet,
she believed that the people had not yet learnt the lessons of Turgot and
the physiocrats, who had taught ‘that the prosperity of a state depends
on the freedom of industry; that talents should be permitted to find their
level [and] that the unshackling of commerce is the only secret to render
it flourishing, and answer more effectually the ends for which it is politi-
cally necessary’ (, ). In short, the revolution had been impeded by
violence because the French had been too much like ill-educated
women, full of a kind of revolutionary vanity and excitability
inappropriate to the business of rational legislation. Thus it was exces-
sive sensibility which had led to the atrocities: ‘so weak is the tenderness
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
produced by sympathy, or polished manners, compared with the
humanity of a cultivated understanding. Alas! it is morals, not feelings
which distinguish men from beasts of prey!’ (, ).
Looking back over the history of France, she considered that it was
perhaps not surprising that the revolution had resulted in violence, for
the corrupting influence of despotism had long deprived the people of
all respect for justice and the law (, ). Ostensibly she believed that
the French would continue to approach true reason and virtue, while
occasionally expressing doubts about how this was going be achieved.45
In general terms she endorsed Condorcet’s notion of the civilising role
of commerce, but that did not prevent her from acknowledging Adam
Smith’s remarks on the brutalising effect of the division of labour (,
). And she was also driven to question his optimistic model of public
education, while discussing the original debate over the ‘Declaration of
the Rights of Man’.
Several members argued that the declaration ought to conclude and not
precede the constitution; insisting that it was dangerous to awaken a somnam-
bulist on the brink of a precipice; or to take a man to the top of a mountain, to
show him a vast country that belonged to him, but of which he could not
immediately claim the possession. ‘It is a veil,’ said they, ‘that it would be impru-
dent to raise suddenly – it is a secret that it is necessary to conceal, till the effect
of a good constitution puts them into a situation to hear it with safety’. (, )
The suggestion that the people might have to undergo a process of
cultural re-education before receiving political instruction, that the
inculcation of manners might have to precede the reception of laws runs
through much of the Historical and Moral View. And this is just one of the
ways in which Wollstonecraft moves beyond the ‘instructional’ model of
political emancipation favoured by Condorcet to contemplate a more
‘educational’ approach, as if the failure of the legislative period of the
Revolution had forced her to rethink the rationalist equation of knowl-
edge and virtue. It is worth noting, moreover, that in the passage quoted
above the ‘Declaration’ is both a prospect and a precipice: an indirect
recognition on Wollstonecraft’s part of Edmund Burke’s insight that
when compared with the positive concept of freedom expressed by the
chivalric tradition, the revolutionary discourse of rights offered an
entirely legalistic definition of liberty that was potentially quite demoral-
ising in nature.46
Many republicans were to find it impossible to write progressive
history in the aftermath of the Terror, since for a large number of fellow-
travellers the spectacle of mass death, accompanied by increasing polit-
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
ical disappointment, had begun to call the entire project into question.
Symbolically, Rabaut St Etienne’s liberal Précis historique de la Revolution
Française had stopped short at , only to be completed after its author’s
death by the monarchist historian Lacretelle jeune. In this context, it is
perhaps understandable that, when she returned to England in 
Wollstonecraft was to abandon her Historical and Moral View in order to
help her friend Joseph Johnson publish a handful of works recently
penned by some of her former revolutionary acquaintances: Jean-
Baptiste Louvet’s Mémoires, which told of his harrowing experiences as a
proscrit on the run from the Jacobin authorities during the reign of
Robespierre, Madame Roland’s posthumous Appel à la posterité impartielle,
a series of autobiographical and political writings written in prison
during the autumn of , as well as Condorcet’s more formal and
abstract Esquisse. What cannot have failed to strike Wollstonecraft, as she
read through the memoirs of Roland, was the extraordinary power of
her first-person narrative, the energy and persuasiveness of her plain-
speaking style. Probably Louvet had much the same effect. But what
must also have affected her was the explicit use which both these writers
made of the tropes and techniques of Rousseau, his confessional
rhetoric and his fictional topoi. For a writer who had sought to move
beyond her early enthusiasm for Rousseau in the early s it must have
been a singularly intriguing experience to find Jean-Jacques being
invoked and imitated in this way, and to such powerful effect, by writers
who were otherwise broadly sympathetic to her own ‘progressive’ posi-
tion. So much so, indeed, that it may have encouraged her to rethink her
attitude, not only to Rousseau’s Confessions and his Nouvelle Heloïse, but
also to the relationship between femininity and sensibility, women and
writing, for when she next came to reflect on recent European history, it
was in the context of a deliberately confessional, more openly ‘appeal-
ing’ document, the Letters from Sweden, Norway and Denmark of .


Set in a small community in the Swiss Alps, La Nouvelle Heloïse describes
how a friendship develops between a humble tutor, Saint-Preux, and his
pupil, Julie d’Etange, the daughter of a wealthy nobleman of the region.
Saint-Preux’s affection for Julie soon flames into an importunate roman-
tic desire deeply inappropriate to their difference in status. Their love is
briefly consummated, but Julie subsequently repents her passion, and
somewhat theatrically embraces a life of religious piety and domestic
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
obedience, allowing herself to be married off to one of her father’s
friends, the middle-aged rationalist and atheist Baron de Wolmar.
Almost suicidal with despair, Saint-Preux leaves the little community to
travel the world, and on his return Baron de Wolmar and Julie invite him
to live with them on their estate at Clarens. Clarens boasts a smoothly
regulated domestic economy that Rousseau clearly intends us to regard
as a model of fairness and rationality. During his stay, Julie encourages
Saint-Preux to sublimate and diffuse his desire for her, to rechannel his
ardour into a broader network of social and domestic affections. Her
influence gradually resocialises him, healing him back into the commu-
nity as a whole.
During the course of this section of the novel, we are made aware of
the extent to which Julie has been transformed into an instrument of
Wolmar’s benevolent dictatorship, nurturing and shaping the affections
of the community at the wine-harvest while he discreetly monitors its
moral economy from a distance. At the end of the novel she falls fatally
ill, and as she dies she is moved to confess her continuing love for Saint-
Preux. Just before she expires she makes him promise to stay on at
Clarens after her death to tutor her children. In this way the novel offers
us an ambiguous ending that it is possible to read either in terms of the
return of repressed ‘revolutionary’ desire, or as the final stage in the
domestication and sublimation of Saint-Preux’s passion. Julie’s death
itself can be read either as a form of republican martyrdom, or as an
example of Christian renunciation: ‘No, I shall not leave you’, she writes
to Saint-Preux in her last letter, ‘I shall wait for you. The virtue that
separated us on earth will unite us in the eternal resting-place. I die with
this sweet expectation: only too happy to purchase at the expense of my
life the right to love you forever without crime, and to tell you that one
more time!’47
Such was the popularity and influence of La Nouvelle Heloïse that Burke
singled it out for special consideration in the extended attack on
Rousseau in his Letter to a Member of the National Assembly of . For not
only was it Rousseau’s best-known work, it was also the work in which
his paradoxical theories had been given their most seductive form, hence
it was especially needful of rebuke. In Burke’s eyes, it was a veritable
source-book of revolutionary morality: its account of the love-affair
between a humble tutor and the daughter of a wealthy Swiss aristocrat
was full of ‘metaphysical speculations blended with coarse sensuality’.48
It was not surprising, therefore, that the French Revolutionaries had
used it to propagate those principles by which every servant might think
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
it if not his duty at least his privilege to betray his ‘master’, principles
which tended ‘to destroy all the tranquillity and security of domestic life;
turning the asylum of the house into a gloomy prison.’49 That this novel
was not merely Burke’s bête-noire becomes evident when we look at the
Anti-Jacobin pamphlets of the later s. In the early sections of her
Strictures, for example, Hannah More expressed her concern that, with
the decline of the English radical movement since , Jacobinism had
not disappeared, it had merely gone underground. In this light, she saw
the continued influence of Rousseau’s novel among writers and readers
alike as a very dangerous sign, primarily because of the specious appeal
of his celebrated prose style:
Novels, which used chiefly to be dangerous in one respect, are now become mis-
chievous in a thousand. They are continually shifting their ground, and enlarg-
ing their sphere, and are daily becoming vehicles of wider mischief. Sometimes
they concentrate their force, and are at once employed to diffuse destructive
politics, deplorable profligacy, and impudent infidelity. Rousseau was the first
popular dispenser of this complicated drug, in which the deleterious infusion
was strong, and the effect proportionably fatal. For he does not attempt to
seduce the affections but through the medium of the principles. He does not
paint an innocent woman ruined, repenting, and restored; but with a far more
mischievous refinement, he annihilates the value of chastity, and with per-
nicious subtlety attempts to make his heroine appear almost more amiable
without it.50

The explicit opposition of Burke and More only serves to suggest that
the novel enjoyed continued favour in this period, and to indicate that
its popularity was always potentially linked to its supposed political char-
acter. Again, as in the case of the Confessions, it was a case of the medium
becoming the message. In her Lettres sur . . . Jean-Jacques Rousseau of 
Germaine de Staël had been prepared to acknowledge that the skeleton
of the narrative was not perhaps as edifying as it might have been, but
she was also determined to assert that if it did not possess a moral ‘plan’
then it nevertheless had a very moral ‘effect’, inspiring the very noblest
of sentiments even while relating the most troubling of stories. Most
importantly of all, in her opinion, the novel exemplified the power of
love as a force for improvement; functioning not as a tale of seduction,
but as a treatise on the power of female aesthetic education, the reshap-
ing of male sensuality into social virtue.51
The novel was quite unlike any of Rousseau’s other works in this
respect. The neo-Spartan emphasis of the Contrat Social was not nearly
so much in evidence, and nor was the chauvinism which characterised
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
the last book of Emile. Indeed, in the early stages of the novel, there was
a substantial critique of the tyrannical treatment of women by fathers
and lovers alike, and in the second half, an extended analysis of the
active role which ‘bourgeois’ women might play as moral leaders of the
community. Admittedly, there was also much in the work that many
eighteenth-century feminists would have found pernicious. As has been
mentioned above, a substantial section of Mary Wollstonecraft’s
Vindication of the Rights of Woman had been devoted to a critique of its
romantic idealism. Nevertheless, for de Staël the novel still provided a
kind of model for the ideal role of an enlightened woman in modern
society, and it was on these terms that she continued to recommend it
throughout her career. It can even be seen to have inspired one of her
own novels Corinne, ou L’Italie (), which explores the character of
another exceptional young woman who grows up to become the moti-
vator, mediator and mentor of the various men who gather around her.
Partly de Staël’s enthusiasm for the novel was a product of her peculiar,
paradoxical, and somewhat contradictory form of feminism, which was
heavily influenced by the French salon culture of the mid-eighteenth
century. In broad terms she acquiesced in the notion that women were
primarily intended for domestic and maternal duties, but she did also
believe that there ought to be exceptions to this general rule: most
notably, talented women, by which she meant women of her own rather
privileged social and educational background, should be free to pursue
their own careers, become authors, and take a full part in public life. And
Julie was a highly positive role model for de Staël in this respect, for she
was in many ways a revolutionary version of the salon hostess, a woman
whose muse-like qualities were put in the service of the entire commu-
nity and not merely an exclusive clique.
What is more, many contemporary commentators were to share de
Staël’s enthusiastic appraisal of the novel as a fundamentally libertarian
text, to the extent that it remained extremely popular in radical circles
throughout the revolutionary period, not least among female readers, for
whom it provided an empowering alternative to the notoriously mis-
ogynistic Emile. But for all its continued popularity, interpretations of it,
and allusions to it, did undergo a significant change during the course of
the s. In the early years of the Revolution, for example, it was most
often seen in its political aspect, as a fully-blown essay, in fictional form,
on the rehaping of private feeling into public virtue. Friedrich Schiller’s
Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man of – is a case in point.
Although ostensibly a theoretical treatise on the educative capacity of
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
aesthetics, its epigraph was explicitly borrowed from La Nouvelle Heloïse –
‘If it is reason which makes a man, it is feeling which leads him’ – as if
to draw attention to the fact that the abstract ménage à trois that Schiller
was proposing between Sense, Reason and Aesthetic Education had its
fictional counterpart in the educational arrangement between Saint-
Preux, Wolmar and Julie that was attempted at Clarens. Expressly
written out of a desire to try and recuperate the revolutionary ideal after
the failure of the first phase of constitutional legislation, Schiller’s trea-
tise was directly contemporaneous with the Festival of the Supreme
Being, and like Robespierre, its author can be seen to have been
reflecting on the political lessons to be learned from Wolmar’s use of
Julie to re-educate the modern populace. In order to improve the moral
life of the individual, Schiller argued, culture would have to interpose
itself between the subject in his capacity as a sensuous, living being, and
the onerous demands of public virtue, acting as ‘a third character, which
akin to both the others, might prepare a transition from the rule of mere
force to the rule of law, and which, without in any way impeding the
development of moral character, might on the contrary serve as a pledge
in the sensible world of a morality as yet unseen’.52 And by choosing an
epigraph from La Nouvelle Heloïse Schiller was able to use an extremely
well-known novel in order to reinforce his point, since the figure of Julie
was so obviously such a perfect personification of this ‘third character’.
In the latter part of the decade, however, when La Nouvelle Heloïse was
discussed or invoked, there was far less emphasis placed upon Clarens as
a template of utopia. Instead, there were many more references to those
sections of the novel, in which libertarian sentiment had expressed itself
in a romantic rather than a legislative manner. In the memoirs of the
proscribed Girondins, many of which were written either in prison or in
exile during the fatal months of the Terror, we find La Nouvelle Heloïse
being put to new uses. In the writings of Marie-Jeanne Roland, for
example, the character of Julie actually provided the lens through which
she interpreted her revolutionary experience, but in a manner very
different from either Schiller or de Staël.
Having been inspired at a very early age by the figure of Rousseau’s
heroine, Roland spent much of her early epistolary life in emulation of
her literary character. And after the outbreak of the Revolution itself,
she began to carry out the role of Julie on a more political level, hosting
one of the leading radical salons of the early s, at which she enter-
tained many of the leading republicans of the age, including
Robespierre himself, who was at one time a close friend and ally. And
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
later, she was to become increasingly involved in the business of govern-
ment itself, offering her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, the Minister of
the Interior, an enormous amount of unofficial and undisclosed help
with the propaganda work of the new Bureau de l’esprit public. Given her
outstanding talents, and the considerable if largely covert influence she
exerted upon ministerial politics during –, it was not perhaps sur-
prising that when the Jacobins turned against women in public life
between –, Marie-Jeanne was to fall foul of the virulent popular
press, rapidly coming to be seen as a kind of Girondin version of that
other female political intriguer Marie-Antoinette. After the proscription
of the Gironde, and her own subsequent imprisonment, she began to
feel increasingly betrayed by the Revolution in general and by
Robespierre in particular, whom she had once considered to be an
‘honest man’. And she also grew increasingly frustrated by the licentious-
ness and barbarity of the French people as a whole; so much so, in fact,
that she regularly punctuated her prison memoirs with heartfelt
harangues:
Liberty – She is for proud spirits who despise death and yet know how to admin-
ister it. She is not made for this corrupt nation which only leaves the bed of
debauchery or the jaws of misery in order to brutalise itself in licentiousness,
reddening as it wades through the endless streams of blood flowing from the
scaffolds! She is not made for such feeble individuals who try to preserve their
own lives while the fatherland laments, as civil wars ravage it, and destruction
and fear are spreading everywhere. 53
What is striking about Roland’s ‘Dernières Pensées’, which were
written at the very end of her life, when she must have known her days
were numbered, is that for all their explicit opposition to the Jacobin
Terror, they are still strikingly close to Robespierre in their ideological
character. Contrary to the example of many members of the Gironde,
they do not condemn the French for their use of political violence, and
nor do they criticise the revolutionary cult of public sacrifice, instead
they constitute an appeal for a return to true republican values, such as
virtue and restraint. And Robespierre himself was often to strike a sim-
ilarly neo-Spartan note in his speeches at this time. Given this resem-
blance, it is interesting that, apart from listing its excesses, one of the
primary means by which Roland differentiated herself from the Jacobin
regime, was by rehearsing and recycling the romantic topos of La
Nouvelle Heloïse. In the last months of her life she wrote many ardent
letters to her lover, the proscribed Girondin François Buzot, letters which
Mary Wollstonecraft herself may have helped to deliver. Primarily, of
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
course, these were private letters. But there is also a great deal of inter-
nal and external evidence to suggest that they were also intended for
posthumous publication, and that Jeanne-Marie considered them as a
possible means of intervening upon the revolutionary debate, as well as
a settling of her private accounts. And the likelihood of this increases
when we observe the highly self-conscious way in which she recreates the
dynamic between Julie and Saint-Preux in these last letters, creating a
field of republican transparency between herself and her lover in order
to dramatise the opacity of the political situation which continued to sur-
round them. For example, in a particularly heart-rending letter written
shortly before her execution, she undertook a direct pastiche of Julie’s
final words:
And you whom I dare not name! – You who will be better known one day when
the world laments our common misfortune; whom the most terrible of passions
had not prevented from respecting the barriers of virtue, will it afflict you to see
me precede you to that place where nothing can prevent us from being united?
– There dreadful prejudices, arbitrary exclusions, hateful passions, and mani-
fold tyrannies will be no more [. . .] Adieu, no, I am not leaving you; to leave
the world is for us to come together.54
In allusions such as this, it will be immediately evident that less
emphasis was being placed upon Julie’s gradual training of Saint-Preux,
and more on the stubborn survival of their youthful romantic longing, a
longing which was explicitly defined against the imperfectly ‘utopian’
structure by which they were surrounded, without being any the less
‘political’ or ‘republican’ in feeling on that account. And by this means,
Roland was able to use ‘private’ feeling as a means of criticising the
public tyranny of the First Republic without threatening her credentials
as a hard-line defender of republican values. As she herself said in one
of her letters: ‘Unknown and ignored I can, in silence and retreat, dis-
tract myself from the horrors which are tearing apart the bosom of my
country, and await, in the practice of private virtue, the conclusion to
these evils’.55 Ultimately, of course, given her status as a married woman
with a lover, Roland’s claim to private virtue was really rather problem-
atic, and thus her publisher Bosc decided to suppress almost all of the
references to Buzot in the first edition of the Mémoires, for fear that it
might harm the Girondin cause. But even in the published version,
Roland was still to able to offer her private affections as an emblem of
public virtue under siege.
A similar emphasis was evident in another one of the Girondin nar-
ratives of the period, Jean-Baptiste Louvet’s Mémoires, which were
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
published shortly after his emergence from hiding in –. And in this
case there was no need for the same degree of censorship. For through-
out this harrowing tale of persecution and pursuit, Louvet was able to
offer his love for his own absent wife Lodoiska as a kind of utopian
longing, comparing it to the thwarted affection of the exiled Saint-Preux
in the early part of Rousseau’s novel. Describing his exile in the Jura
during –, he was not afraid to evoke the descriptions of
Switzerland contained in ‘the sublime and virtuous Rousseau’, nor to
identify himself closely with Rousseau’s protagonist, as he ranged
among the savage rocks of Meillerie in anxious anticipation of a recon-
ciliation with his beloved. And in this way he was able to give his
enforced exile a republican pedigree, distracting attention from the fact
that in moving backwards and forwards across the border with
Switzerland, he had transformed himself, if only briefly, into an émigré.56
Thus for both Roland and Louvet the love of Julie and Saint-Preux was
a model of republican martyrdom, a consolation for the failure of the
revolution, and a promise of future liberty and equality. And selective
allusion to the novel was crucial in helping to give their memoirs a prop-
erly public status, for it was only by drawing upon the novel’s representa-
tion of love as the germ of civic feeling that Louvet and Roland were
able to use their own experiences of romantic estrangement to affirm
that, in spite of the direful effects of persecution and suffering, public
virtue was still alive and well in France, and no less hardy for having been
temporarily incubated in a private form.


As is well known, Wollstonecraft’s Letters [from] Sweden, Norway and
Denmark began life as a series of personal missives written to her
estranged American lover Gilbert Imlay, a merchant and entrepreneur
with whom she had lived during her time in France.57 Only later were
they collated, augmented and revised into a full-scale travel book
offering an extensive analysis of the social conditions then prevailing
among the little-known countries of Scandinavia. Condorcet had
praised travel writing in the Esquisse as a valuable contribution to histori-
cal progress, considering that a comparative study of the social customs
and institutions of different nations would contribute greatly to the
augmentation and advancement of knowledge. In this context,
Wollstonecraft’s Letters could be seen as an attempt to move beyond
political disappointment into a new realm of philosophical enquiry,
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
incorporating elements of the emergent discourse of social science into
the popular genre of travel literature. But simply to interpret the letters
in this way would be to neglect their highly personal character, for the
sociological observations and political reflections scattered throughout
the text are always made subservient to the self-consciously confessional
form of the whole. Nevertheless, it is my contention that this autobio-
graphical element does not offer a repudiation or rejection of the project
of social perfectibility, but a tactical manipulation of it. It is an indul-
gence in the personal as a means of intervening upon the political, and
in this respect, like the Girondin memoirs, an intriguing return to, and
renegotiation of, the sentimental writings of Rousseau.
As befits the circumstances of their composition, Wollstonecraft’s
Letters offer a series of ever-changing impressions of the societies she
encountered in Scandinavia. Upon her first arrival in Norway, she
praises the simplicity of its peasant life, feeling herself briefly trans-
ported back to the ‘golden age’. She then goes on to describe how her
surroundings encourage her to forget the horrors she had witnessed
during the French Revolution, rekindling her waning ‘enthusiasm’ for
social improvement. And she also relates how the sentiments arising in
her as a result of the contemplation of the beautiful forms of nature
serve as a reminder of her affection for her fellow-beings, and in particu-
lar her loved ones, making her feel less like a ‘particle broken off from
mankind’. As her trip develops, however, ‘primitivist’ effusions such as
this are increasingly forced to compete with sentiments more straightfor-
wardly ‘progressive’ in nature. Despite being intrigued by various details
and practices of Scandinavian life, Wollstonecraft increasingly affirms
the absolute superiority of modern civilization to rural simplicity, asso-
ciating it with the refinement of enjoyment and the raising of moral
consciousness. And as the Letters continue, this ‘progressive’ voice
becomes more pronounced, as the author becomes more than ever con-
vinced that the virtues of a nation bear ‘an exact relation’ to its scientific
improvements.
One curious feature of the Letters, however, and something which a
number of previous critics have often commented upon, is the extent to
which Wollstonecraft suppresses what many of her contemporaries saw
as the necessary link between commercial development and social
improvement. For many eighteenth-century commentators commerce
was one of the most powerful motors of civilisation, fuelling travel and
enquiry, encouraging different peoples from different lands to relate to
one another in ever more peaceable, friendly and mutually beneficial
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
ways. Others, by contrast, most notably Rousseau, considered com-
merce simply as the breeding-ground of luxury and selfishness. As for
Wollstonecraft, it seems that during the s she grew progressively
closer to the position adopted on this issue by her future partner William
Godwin, who was at one and the same time a firm champion of ration-
al improvement and a critic of the general effects of commercial
exchange. The structural irony that haunts Wollstonecraft’s Letters, of
course, is that while its author celebrates travel as a catalyst of enlight-
ened enquiry and general social improvement, she neglects to mention
that her trip to Scandinavia had been both prompted and facilitated by
the principle of trade, for it was in essence a commercial errand for
Imlay which had taken her to the Baltic states in the first place.
Regardless of this, however, for Wollstonecraft as for Godwin, ‘enlight-
enment’ was a self-conscious project, not a mere side-effect of the
general expansion of trade and industry.
In the Letters this philosophic spirit is necessarily somewhat aloof from
the world, but it is also oddly in tune with the sights and sounds of
nature, the beauty and harmony of which, in Wollstonecraft’s mind,
effectively anticipate the social improvements of the future, thus devel-
oping into a source of utopian sentiment at once powerful and painful.
As in Godwin, therefore, Wollstonecraft’s ideal society is at one and the
same time a realm of free enquiry, a site of open debate and discussion,
a highly ‘civilized’ place and a place of almost pastoral simplicity, a social
order transparent not only to itself but also to nature. Unlike Political
Justice, however, the Letters do not fully indulge their prophetic spirit, they
do not, finally, attempt to legislate the future, and at no point does
Wollstonecraft give in to the lawgiving impulse. But as we shall see, the
concept of legislation, and the figure of the legislator, is nevertheless a
crucial element in the text.
From the very beginning, Wollstonecraft makes much of her solitari-
ness, and the people that she meets are highly conscious of it too. Indeed
she often has the impression that she is all the more interesting to the
Scandinavians because of her unusual status, as a single woman travel-
ling alone in a foreign country. Yet she does not merely explore her soli-
tude, she also exploits it, and in a number of interesting ways. Partly she
uses it to dramatise her own emotional isolation, her estrangement from
the rest of mankind. But also, in a distinct but related move, she uses it
to indulge a fantasy of herself as a Rousseauvian législateur. As we saw in
chapter , in the Contrat Social the legislator was a fundamentally solitary
figure, an outsider, a foreigner, whose very foreignness, indeed, was what
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
gave him the capacity to function as a disinterested lawgiver. And in her
various encounters in Scandinavia, Wollstonecraft actively seeks to iden-
tify herself, on a number of separate occasions, with this singular type,
sympathising with the reforming instincts of Queen Matilda, for
example, but also, and more significantly, implicitly comparing herself
with the aforementioned ‘Peruvian pair’, having conspicuously dropped
down, like them, as if from the sky, into the very heart of a primitive and
alien society.
Essentially this comparison is intended to point a contrast: that
whereas the Peruvian pair effectively managed to improve the manners
of a nation, Wollstonecraft’s attempts to improve Scandinavian domes-
tic practice fall on decidedly deaf ears. Without the additional help of a
‘pious fraud’, it seems, reason alone is not yet powerful enough to
counter the forces of custom and prejudice. There is a consolation for
this, however, which is the discovery by Wollstonecraft of another kind
of power, the power that solitude brings, its capacity to generate sym-
pathy among her readers as well as her acquaintances, a discovery which
has implications not only for her personal but also for her literary char-
acter. For increasingly in the Letters Wollstonecraft begins to adopt the
persona of the solitary legislator, whose sentimental idealism comes to
represent a kind of utopian principle in itself, as well as an index of the
unregenerate nature of the society which surrounds her. As in the fifth
of Rousseau’s Rêveries, the ‘state’ of nature is represented as the only
place in which the solitary legislator feels at home; it alone constitutes a
realm in harmony with his or her own internal ‘nature’. But the compari-
son with Rousseau does not end there, for in their very openness and
directness, Wollstonecraft’s Letters, like the Confessions and La Nouvelle
Heloïse, can be seen to function not merely as an expression of sensibil-
ity but also as a test of it. For in the published version of the text,
Wollstonecraft’s impassioned plea for Imlay to cast aside his ‘commer-
cial spirit’ is, of course, directed as much to the reader as to her recalci-
trant lover – a characteristically Rousseauvian manoeuvre, which
undermines the traditional barrier between author and audience, and
effectively offers an extremely powerful ‘negative’ version of the utopian
spirit.
Of course, the fact that the author of the Letters is writing to an actual
interlocutor, and not, as in Rousseau’s Rêveries, simply ruminating in a
self-created vacuum, makes a huge difference. One of the reasons why
Wollstonecraft’s use of the letter-form is so powerful is that she employs
it in such a way as to recall, but also differentiate herself from, several of
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
its more celebrated former practitioners: Sterne’s Yorick, of course, but
also Werther, and most of all, perhaps, the two lovers from La Nouvelle
Heloïse. That the monologic structure of the Letters recalls the atmosphere
of inner suffering depicted in Goethe’s novel was to some degree
acknowledged by Godwin when he referred to its author as a kind of
‘female Werther’ in his Memoirs of . And what de Staël was to say of
Goethe’s hero – that he was an example of the fate of a noble spirit
suffering under a bad social order – was also preeminently true of
Wollstonecraft, and of the way in which she presented herself. But above
and beyond this, there is a broader allusion in the Letters to one of the
most celebrated sections of La Nouvelle Heloïse: that part of the novel
when Saint-Preux is forced to leave Clarens because of the importunacy
of his desires for Julie, temporarily retreating into exile at Meillerie, a site
high up in the mountains on the other side of the lake, where he writes
to her of the simple, virtuous life of the people of the Pays de Vaud, who
have helped in various ways to soften his love-lorn anguish. And in
reworking the topos of these famous letters, once again Wollstonecraft
invokes Rousseau in order to distance herself from him, firstly by taking
the man’s part in the sentimental narrative, the part of the active exile;
secondly by refusing to idealise her ‘primitive’ retreat; and thirdly by pro-
viding only one half of the dialogue – emphasising her role as a passion-
ate, energetic, inquiring woman, while also dramatising the culpable
non-responsiveness of her correspondent.
It is important, therefore, to read Wollstonecraft’s continued commit-
ment to rational instruction over and above the temptations of ‘pious
frauds’ in the context of the ongoing project of personal re-education
undertaken by the Letters as a whole, for throughout her discussion of the
social and cultural conditions prevailing in the Norway, Sweden and
Denmark, and the means by which they might be improved, she makes
a series of attempts to ‘improve’ her correspondent and former lover
Gilbert Imlay by seeking to cajole him, tease him, even to seduce him to
virtue. Eschewing Robespierrist ‘education’ on a public level, she
remained seriously committed to it at the level of the private. And this
becomes increasingly explicit in the closing letters, where Wollstonecraft
describes her estrangement from her ‘demon lover’ as a direct result of
his passion for commercial speculation. In the Historical and Moral View
she had accused commerce of dividing the French people; in the Letters
she charged it with dividing her lover from herself, reworking
Rousseau’s classic opposition between artificial corruption and natural
virtue:
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
Ah! shall I whisper to you – that you – yourself, are strangely altered, since you
have entered deeply into commerce – more than you are aware of – never
allowing yourself to reflect, and keeping your mind, or rather passions, in a con-
tinual state of agitation – Nature has given you talents, which lie dormant, or
are wasted in ignoble pursuits – You will rouse yourself, and shake off the vile
dust that obscures you, or my understanding, as well as my heart, deceives me,
egregiously – only tell me when? (, –)

In the preface to the Discours sur l’Inégalité Rousseau had represented


the historical decline of natural man in terms of the ancient statue of
Glaucus, a monument ‘so disfigured by time, seas and tempests, that it
looked more like a wild beast than a god’.58 Like Glaucus, Imlay has
been disfigured by history, his natural virtue so obscured by commercial
trafficking that he has become scarcely recognisable. And thus one can
see that, despite her ostensible opposition to Rousseau’s political theory,
Wollstonecraft was still prepared to redeploy his rhetoric of regenera-
tion, reworking images from a public text such as the Discours in a res-
olutely private context, in order to give force and emphasis to her
critique of Imlay. And in many ways this is quite characteristic of the
way in which Rousseau’s criticism of contemporary society acquired the
status of a regulative principle in the work of a number of English and
French radicals after the Jacobin Terror, of the way in which his ideal of
simplicity and transparency passed from public policy back into the
realm of sentimental literature, no longer a viable alternative to modern
commercial society, but still powerful as a form of cultural critique.
Throughout the Letters Wollstonecraft cultivates the language of soli-
tary sensibility as a means of cajoling and berating the conscience of her
reader. So too in the Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire of  Rousseau had
defended his retreat into solitary exile by declaring that society had
forced him to live alone. In another and more transparent world, he
argued, he would have been truly sociable; as things were he was fated
to be a solitary. Then he proceeded to recount the rural pleasures that
he would never have known had it not been for his enemies.59 In this way
he suggested to his readers that at some future point they might be able
to share in his meditative ecstasies, while insinuating that they would
have to undergo a species of moral regeneration in order to do so.
Rehearsing Rousseau’s rhetoric of self-martyrdom, Wollstonecraft
opposed her own internal joys to the slings and arrows of an increasingly
outrageous fortune. She too expressed her ambivalence concerning the
paradoxical freedoms of exile: ‘I cannot immediately determine,’ she
says at one point, in a phrase that recalled Rousseau’s characteristic
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
phraseology, ‘whether I ought to rejoice at having turned over in this soli-
tude a new page in the history of my own heart’ (, ).60 In this way
she invites the reader to share the fruits of her newfound inwardness,
while suggesting that they could only be shared by a conscience that was
sympathetically open to hers.
As many commentators have pointed out, ‘sensibility’ is seen more
positively in the Letters than in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In her
classic study of Wollstonecraft’s work, Mary Poovey has described this
shift in terms of a movement away from the ultra-rationalist feminism
of the early s towards a new formulation which acknowledged the
improving power of feeling. Poovey interprets this in biographical terms,
seeing Wollstonecraft’s growing acceptance of her own feminine sus-
ceptibility as a courageous response to the trials and tribulations of her
relationship with Imlay.61 But it is also possible to see Wollstonecraft’s
‘brave new vulnerabillity’ in rather more polemical terms. In the case of
the Letters from Sweden, the wounded persona adopted by the author can
be interpreted as a self-conscious manipulation of the language of
sensibility designed to make a tactical intervention in the revolutionary
debate. As William Godwin put it in his Memoirs of the Author of the
Vindication of the Rights of Woman of : ‘If ever there was a book cal-
culated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be
the book’. Godwin was remarkably astute in this respect, recognising
that behind Wollstonecraft’s peculiar mixture of confident social
observation and vulnerable personal reflection there lay a deliberate
strategy of aesthetic education.
As we have seen, in the months and years that followed the death of
Robespierre, a number of republicans and fellow-travellers were drawn
to reflect on the theory of aesthetic education as a means of teaching
political virtue. In her treatise De la Littérature of  Germaine de Staël
developed a thoroughly feminised conception of aesthetic education to
contrast with that of Friedrich Schiller. She blamed the excesses of the
Terror upon the exclusion of women from political and cultural life that
had taken place during the Jacobin period. ‘since the Revolution,’ she
argued, ‘men have thought it politically and morally worthwhile (utile) to
reduce women to the most absurd mediocrity’.62 Without the mediating
influence of women, the pursuit of Spartan simplicity had degenerated
into mere brutality, hence she suggested that it was time for men to stop
victimising women, and for women to stop victimising themselves, espe-
cially as it was clear that they had an important role to play in the cul-
tural life of the republic, restraining the competitive, political instincts of
Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and aesthetic education 
men and promoting the aesthetic assimilation of republican values. A
fervent follower of Rousseau, de Staël preferred the feminised model of
public education which had been developed in La Nouvelle Heloïse to the
one outlined in the Lettre à d’Alembert. In her ideal vision of things, liter-
ature was to be a ‘dear despot’ uniting the whole community, after the
model supplied by Julie at the wine harvest of Clarens. And like Julie, the
talented woman was to benefit from this arrangement by becoming a
kind of nurse-maid of reason, acquiring a respected status in the com-
munity, no longer condemned to ‘[wander] through her solitary exis-
tence like an Indian pariah’, as she was under the Jacobins (–).63
Like de Staël’s talented woman, Wollstonecraft depicts her restless
movement from social observation to introspective reflection, from the
city to the mountains and back, as an unrequited love of the ideal.
Choosing not to inform the reader of the commercial errand she was
running in Scandinavia for Imlay, she invites him or her to imagine that
her peregrinations are prompted not by business but by emotional neces-
sity.64 Even in the published version of the Letters it is clear that the author
has been transformed into a vagabond by the indifference of her lover,
so that she is forced ‘to hide the starting tears, or to shed them on my
pillow, and close my eyes on a world where I was destined to wander
alone’. Indeed it is the perennial condition of a woman of intelligence
and fine feeling, she suggests, to be restless and without a home:
My imagination hurries me forward to seek an asylum in such a retreat from all
the disappointments I am threatened with; but reason drags me back, whisper-
ing that the world is still the world, and man the same compound of weakness
and folly, who must occasionally excite love and disgust, admiration and con-
tempt. (, –)

In both sets of Girondin memoirs the Jacobin obstacle that separated


Louvet and Roland from their respective lovers was what defined each
relationship as the symbol of a distant vision of transparency, liberty and
equality. Similarly in the Letters from Sweden, the author’s unrequited
passion for her American lover is worked up into an emotion of political
significance. The difference lies in the fact that in Wollstonecraft’s
version Imlay was himself the obstacle. In this way this radical woman’s
continuing attachment to, and increasing frustration with, the failed
Revolution is figured metonymically in her relationship with her demon
lover.65 Thus, while from the standpoint of the rational legislator
Wollstonecraft could still affirm the principle of social perfectibility,
when viewing things from the perspective of the solitary woman, it
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
seemed as distant as ever. And it was this that led her to reflect ironically
upon her daughter’s future, in one of the most celebrated passages of the
Letters:
You know that as a female I am particularly attached to her – I feel more than
a woman’s fondness and anxiety, when I reflect on the dependent and oppressed
state of her sex. With trembling hand I shall cultivate sensibility, and cherish
delicacy of sentiment, lest, whilst I lend fresh blushes to the rose, I sharpen the
thorns that will wound the breast I would fain guard – I dread to unfold her
mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit – Hapless
woman! what a fate is thine! (, )
There was no point in educating her daughter to be intelligent and
sensitive, Wollstonecraft suggested, for it would only turn her into an
outcast like her mother. In passages like this, it is clear the extent to which
feminine sensibility has been deliberately radicalised.66 It is no longer, as
it was in the Vindication, a faculty complicit with the institutions of patri-
archy, it is a utopian principle, an educative force, a symbol of the gap
between the present state of society and one of true liberty and equal-
ity. In this way Wollstonecraft succeeds in reinflecting Rousseau’s lan-
guage of solitary martyrdom, and supplying it with an entirely new
meaning. Like Robespierre in his final speeches, she effectively reworks
the former’s confessional rhetoric in order to develop a politics of dis-
appointment. And so, despite the fact that it could no longer be offered
as a microcosm of the general will, in texts like this the Rousseauvian self
continued to survive as a political gadfly on the back of contemporary
society, a means of privately incubating the revolutionary ideal at a time
of retreat and retrenchment.
  

Strangling the infant Hercules: Malthus and the


population controversy


With his Essay on the Principle of Population of  Thomas Malthus made
one of the most significant and lasting contributions to the counter-
revolutionary cause in England, as important, in its way, as Burke’s
Reflections of . Seeking to capitalise on the perceptible decline of the
British Jacobin movement during the late s, and on the consequent
waning of radical enthuasism among the English middle class, Malthus
thought he saw an opportunity to settle the ongoing debate on the
French Revolution forever, by subjecting its fundamental principles to a
thoroughly mathematical – and therefore unanswerable – critique.
Primarily, he sought to do this by exploding the radical assumption that
institutions were the main cause of human happiness or misery: ‘in
reality,’ he wrote, ‘they are mere feathers that float on the surface in
comparison with those deeper seated causes of impurity that corrupt the
springs and render turbid the whole stream of human life’.1
Taking issue wth the discourse of perfectibility that had been popular-
ised by Godwin and Condorcet in the first half of the revolutionary
decade, Malthus argued that man was above all things an animal driven
by sexual instinct and the need for food, fatally incapable of gaining
rational control of his bodily needs and passions. He stated his case with
quasi-scientific precision: ‘Firstly, that food is necessary to the existence
of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary and
will remain nearly in its present state.’ And by introducing his theory in
the form of a ratio, he sought to pass it off as a statement of objective
truth: ‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.
Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance
with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison
with the second . . . This implies a strong and constantly operating check
on population from the difficulty of subsistence’ (). Society would

 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
never be able to free its inhabitants from want, he contested, in an argu-
ment that was as controversial as it was striking, because it was an
absolute law of nature that population would always press upon the
existing food supply. In his eyes, it was impossible for men to restrain
their urge to reproduce; only vice and misery – by which he meant
illness, disease and death – would ever be able to keep population at a
stable level, for if any nation were to produce more food than its citizens
required, more children would immediately appear to swallow up the
surplus. This meant that there was at the very heart of the human condi-
tion an anti-utopian element deeply inimical to the cause of perfectibil-
ity. Even Godwin’s anarchist utopia, assuming it could ever be achieved,
would not be immune from the cruel calculus of the population princi-
ple, since its régime of ease and plenty would inevitably lead to over-
population, and this in turn would result in the eventual return of social
inequality and the reinstitution of private property.
The impact of Malthus’s Essay upon political debate in England
cannot be over-emphasised. Indeed it struck many of the leading
members of the English Jacobin movement with the force of a true
counter-revolution. During the early s the philosophical radicalism
of the French and Scottish Enlightenment had been considered to be
eminently compatible with the utopianism of the French Revolution. In
the work of figures such as Mackintosh and Priestley in England, as well
as Condorcet in France, the new disciplines of political economy and
social science had been put squarely in the service of the revolutionary
ideal. However, almost single-handedly Malthus succeeded in changing
all that, not merely by making counter-revolutionary use of discourses
which had seemed wholly revolutionary only a few years before, but also
by effectively appropriating them for the reactionary cause, so that it
became very difficult, in the ensuing years, for old-style Jacobins to find
any support for their egalitarian vision in the discourses and practices of
modern political economy.
For reasons that it will be important to explore, the rise of the popula-
tion principle to popularity was nothing short of meteoric. By the early
years of the nineteenth century Malthus’s theory had gained a large
number of adherents, not least among the writers and editors of that
hugely influential organ of Whig opinion, Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh
Review. And this in turn led to a corresponding rise in the public profile
of Jeremy Bentham’s equally counter-revolutionary policies, from his
plans for the rationalisation of the legal system to his initiatives on
pauper management. The effect of the rise of the new school of reform
Malthus and the population controversy 
upon English middle-class radicalism was quite devastating. Not only
did many old-style Jacobins become increasingly alienated from
working-class politics during this period (partly as a result of the Pittite
‘Terror’ of the late s, which had forced the dissolution of most of
the old political clubs and corresponding societies, and partly out of a
growing fear of Parisian ‘sans-culottisme’), but they also became
increasingly divided against themselves, with a split opening up between
unrepentant ‘enthusiasts’ such as William Godwin, William
Wordsworth, John Thelwall and William Hazlitt, who were to remain
committed to the revolutionary ideals of , and new-style ‘progres-
sive’ reformers, men such as Samuel Romilly and Francis Place who
increasingly followed the teachings of Bentham and Malthus. One
purpose of this chapter is to show how this fissure within English poli-
tics effectively reproduced the split at the heart of French middle-class
Jacobinism, how it was shot through with the same feeling of fratricidal
betrayal. The other is to begin to explore the peculiarly frustrated,
fragmented and inward-looking nature of English Jacobinism in
the immediate aftermath of Malthus’s Essay, which forms the back-
ground and context for Wordsworth and Hazlitt’s subsequent ‘politics of
confession’.


In the years following  a wave of bad harvests, coupled with the
effects of the Revolutionary war, exacerbated rural distress and urban
discontent in Britain and Ireland. The crisis provoked an extended
polemical controversy, which increasingly shifted the focus of the revolu-
tion debate from legal and political to economic and fiscal affairs. Tom
Paine’s Agrarian Justice (), which was written in response to a sermon
by the Bishop of Llandaff on ‘the wisdom of God in having made both
rich and poor’, represented the leading republican contribution to the
debate. Incensed at the bishop’s complacency, Paine denied that poverty
was divinely ordained, declaring it to be merely a function of bad
government. Placing the right of subsistence before the right of prop-
erty, he argued that landowners should be made to pay a ground rent for
the privilege of growing crops on land that nobody (strictly speaking)
could own since it was ‘the free gift of the Creator common to the human
race’. A national fund would be created through this ‘ground-rent’,
which would enable a lump sum to be given to each citizen when he or
she reached the age of majority. ‘The plan here proposed’, Paine
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
insisted, ‘will benefit all without injuring any. It will consolidate the inter-
est of the republic with that of the individual.’2
In response to proposals such as this, Malthus’s highly paradoxical
and yet remarkably powerful reply was that a redistribution of wealth
would not, ultimately, improve the lot of the poor, since it would not
increase the amount of food in the system: ‘It may appear strange, but
I believe it is true that I cannot by means of money raise a poor man
and enable him to live much better than he did before, without propor-
tionably depressing others in the same class’ (). And his response to
the poor law policy of Pitt was equally uncompromising. After the bad
harvest of , and the subsequent distress which it engendered, the
magistrates of Speenhamland in Berkshire had decided to supplement
the wages of the poor according to a given standard, a decision which
Pitt had initially approved and offered as a model for other parishes to
follow.3 For Malthus, however, such an extension of the existing system
of poor relief actively undermined the principle of individual self-
reliance. In his eyes, it was highly irresponsible for any parish to encour-
age any degree of security or comfort in the poor families under its
charge, for this would merely encourage them to have more children.4
It was not that Malthus thought the poor should be left to their misery:
his central argument, even in the comparatively uncompromising 
edition of the Essay, was that the best way to ameliorate poverty would
be to abolish the poor laws and to improve the workhouse system, since
this would impel people to live more frugally, and to foster only as many
children as they could themselves support. His intention was rather to
transform radically both the temper and the terms within which reform
was henceforth to be contemplated. For example, the primary purpose
of his proposed system of national education was not to inspire the
poorer classes with the spirit of ‘improvement’, but to inform them of
the extent to which their lives were ruled by economic necessity. In his
eyes, the absolute pervasiveness of the population principle rendered it
imperative that each member of the labouring class ought to be made
to understand the principles of political economy: ‘Hard as it may
appear in individual instances, dependent poverty ought to be held dis-
graceful’, he wrote, ‘a labourer who marries without being able to
support a family may in some respects be considered as an enemy to all
his fellow labourers’ (). In this way, he extended the vocational empha-
sis of Condorcet’s plan of public instruction, while dispensing with the
latter’s commitment to social perfectibility:
Malthus and the population controversy 
The principal argument of this essay tends to place in a strong point of view
the improbability that the lower class of people in any country should ever be
sufficiently free from want and labour to obtain any high degree of intellectual
refinement.
One consequence of the division of intellectual labour which has
been characteristic of western civilisation since the beginning of the
nineteenth century has been that economists and social historians have
always tended to regard the classic works of political economy simply in
terms of their contribution to the development of economic thought.
Thus, for example, Malthus’s Essay has regularly been treated as if it
were simply a set of practical suggestions designed to facilitate the
transition from an agrarian to a capitalist economy.5 Cultural historians
have been somewhat wiser in this respect, recognising that it was also an
extremely wide-ranging sermon on politics, theology and social moral-
ity, which sought to revolutionise contemporary attitudes to land, wealth
and class, and transforming existing attitudes to the nature and value of
human life.6 In  as well as in subsequent editions of this epoch-
making treatise, Malthus advertised and introduced his work as if it
were a disinterested scientific inquiry, as if the ‘melancholy hue’ of his
vision were based on an impartial and objective sifting of the evidence;
quite soon, however, this tone was dropped, and as commentators like
Coleridge, Hazlitt and Cobbett were quick to recognise, the treatise
transformed itself into a Mandevillian tirade.
In the concluding chapters of the Essay this trend reaches its climax
with the author’s outspoken assertion that ‘moral evil is absolutely nec-
essary to the production of moral excellence’ (). The world would not
have been populated, Malthus argued, but for the operation of the prin-
ciple of population, which in every generation has necessitated an
ongoing search for food, provoking activity, exertion and progress, end-
lessly facilitating human endeavour. On this principle, he actively
opposed the plan of contraception offered by Condorcet (which other-
wise might have been seen to negate completely the operation of the
population principle), solely because it removed the element of moral
struggle from the life of the subject, thus contravening God’s providen-
tial plan.7 In this way Malthus can be seen not only to have naturalised
bourgeois competition, but also to have supplied it with a theological
justification.
From the influential eighteenth-century Anglican divine William
Paley, Malthus had drawn the notion that Christian morality should
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
manifest itself in terms of a proto-Benthamite calculation of conse-
quences and not in mere effusions of the ‘conscience’.8 But he was to
differ from Paley in this insistence on the necessity of vice and misery.
‘Evil no doubt exists’, Paley had argued, ‘but it is never, that we can per-
ceive, the object of contrivance’.9 For Malthus, in contrast, it was one of
‘the inevitable laws of our nature’ that some human beings – the idle,
the weak, the incapable – must suffer from want. ‘These are the unhappy
persons’, he remarked ruefully, ‘who in the great lottery of life have
drawn a blank’ ().
Nothing can appear more consonant to our reason than that those beings which
come out of the creative process of the world in lovely and beautiful forms
should be crowned with immortality, while those that come out misshapen,
those whose minds are not suited to a purer and happier state of existence,
should perish and be condemned to mix again with their eternal clay. (–)
Paradoxically, however, the fact that Malthus considered poverty to be
necessary and inevitable did not lessen the extent to which he saw it as
a crime. This was a distinctive feature of the  version of the essay,
but it was by no means eradicated in the later, less overtly controversial,
revisions. A notorious passage added to the  edition furnishes an apt
example:
A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence
from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want
his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has
no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover
for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he
do not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up
and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the
same favour. The report of a provision for all that come fills the hall with numer-
ous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that
before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is
destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall,
and by the clamorous importunity of those who are justly enraged at not finding
the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late
their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the
great mistress of the feast, who wishing that all her guests should have plenty,
and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely
refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.10
In a passage of striking rhetorical power and persuasiveness, Malthus
gives his reader a seat at the mighty feast of human nature, only to show
how charity can cause a single intruder to grow rapidly and without
warning into a ravening, rapacious mass, transforming plenty into
Malthus and the population controversy 
scarcity in the blinking of an eye. No longer a Christian act offsetting the
inequality of fortunes, it has suddenly been transformed into an irre-
sponsible gesture exacerbating the problem of poverty, a socially
destructive action. In encouraging his readers to identify with the guests
at the feast, Malthus strives to warn them of the disastrous consequences
of thoughtless benevolence. And he does this by preying upon a double
fear, both the fear of poverty, and the fear of being impoverished by the
dependent poverty of others. At once, we can see how he might have
been able to exert such a powerful effect upon his contemporaries, not
only because his practical proposals possessed some validity – in many
ways his analysis of the old poor law was remarkably acute – but also
because he created a sublime fear of the mass in anybody who had any-
thing to lose, setting the independent working classes against their
weaker and more precariously situated brethren. Indeed here at a local
level we can see why the population principle had such a devastating
effect on the minds of a whole generation, converting, in the course of
twenty years, not only huge swathes of the aristocracy and the new busi-
ness class to his way of thinking, but also convincing many members of
the lower ranks, such as independent farmers and artisans, that new
systems of pauper management based on saving schemes and the work-
house would have to replace existing methods of poor relief, so that by
the middle years of the nineteenth century Malthusian ideology had
become a part of the Victorian social orthodoxy, much to the anger and
despair of cultural commentators such as Dickens and Carlyle.
In his Reply to Malthus of  – which was produced in response to
the publication of the third edition of the Essay in the previous year –
the ‘Jacobin’ essayist and critic William Hazlitt sought to counter the
growing influence of the population theory by arguing that it was not
the persuasiveness of Malthus’s mathematial proofs which had enabled
him to gain such rapid acceptance with the reading public, but his
manipulation of post-revolutionary class anxiety. Population, in
Malthus’s hands, was made to resemble an ever-growing mob of sans-
culottes that was always threatening to wrest property and wealth from the
respectable ranks of England, and it was this that had given him an Iago-
like hold upon the public ear:
By representing population so often as an evil, and by magnifying its increase
in certain cases as so enormous an evil, he raises a general prejudice against it.11

‘He has given the principle of population a personal existence’,


Hazlitt declared, ‘conceiving it as a sort of infant Hercules, as one of that
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
terrific giant brood, which you can only master by strangling it in its
cradle.’ And Population was indeed ‘an infant Hercules’ in Malthus’s
representation, an oppressed subjectivity always capable at any moment
of mushrooming from one into many, a revolutionary mass reaffirming
itself ever more powerfully after each rebuff. Taking this into account,
Hazlitt considered that the only way to defuse the sublime anxiety which
Malthus had instilled was to painstakingly point out the diseased nature
of these catastrophic imaginings: ‘The gentleman seems greatly alarmed
at his own predictions’, he observed, before going on to suggest that like
Edgar leading Gloucester to an imaginary precipice in Shakespeare’s
King Lear, Malthus was threatening to seduce an entire generation into a
needless ‘Euthanasia’ (, , ).12
But in spite of the best efforts of writers such as Hazlitt and Godwin,
Malthus’s apocalyptic vision was to inspire a long-standing fear of the
revolutionary mob in the minds of the English middle-classes.
Appearing first in , and then in , , ,  and ,
each new edition of the Essay on Population seemed always to intervene
upon the realm of public debate at a time of economic distress and
radical agitation, as if to remind a forgetful generation of the futility of
political idealism. But by the same token, it should also be pointed out
that it did also inadvertently serve to link the crises of the s and s
with the revolutionary struggles of the s, a fact which was not lost
on essentially anti-Jacobin commentators such as the radical William
Cobbett and the Tory Robert Southey, who both thought Malthus a pro-
foundly dangerous figure because of his unwitting regeneration of
revolutionary feeling. Paradoxically enough, therefore, especially given
its profoundly counter-revolutionary bias, in many ways the Essay actu-
ally helped to perpetuate the revolutionary tradition in England in the
early years of the nineteenth century, by supplying contemporary dis-
turbances with a deep historical resonance. As in Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein, so too in Malthus’s Essay, every time the grotesque figure of
revolutionary Jacobinism was condemned to mix again with its eternal
clay, it always seemed to return to haunt its author, more powerfully and
more vengefully than before.
One of the things that inflamed many former Jacobins about
Malthus’s description of the mighty feast, was that it made it seem as if
poverty were just a vulgar intrusion upon the consciousnesses of the rich,
an invasion of the order and harmony quite properly enjoyed by the
propertied classes. In the first edition Malthus had defended this double
standard by arguing that ‘God [was] constantly occupied in forming
Malthus and the population controversy 
mind out of matter’ (). It was in the nature of things, according to
him, that only a certain number of people in society could ever hope to
live in order and harmony, possessing the financial independence to
allow them to be truly free. Thus despite the supposedly universal
applicability of the population principle, he finally came to suggest that
it was entirely right that the middle and upper classes should be able to
occupy a realm of ‘mind’ that was independent of the struggles of the
world of ‘matter’, but that the lives of the poorer members of the com-
munity, by contrast, would always be ruled by material necessity. With
this theoretical division, Malthus helped to reinforce that growing ten-
dency in modern society to treat the respectable and the working classes
as if they were entirely different species, a tendency that the French
Revolution had temporarily succeeded in retarding, without finally
being able to destroy.13
Despite his rhetoric, however, Malthus was not really recommending
that people who were unable to feed themselves should be left alone to
starve. Even in the first edition of the Essay, which was by far the most
strident, there was an acceptance that it might not be either possible or
desirable to abolish the poor laws immediately, and that there might well
be occasions when the selective bestowal of charity could still be socially
beneficial. More insidiously perhaps, he was arguing that individuals
living in any kind of proximity to poverty gave up the right to be sub-
jects, and that therefore the state should cease to consider them as such.
Thus his plan of identifying and then relieving the deserving poor
entailed an increasingly intrusive and interventionist model of pauper
management which was nevertheless free of any moral responsibility
towards the objects of its supervision.14
For Malthus’s antagonists, a series of heated questions were con-
stantly presenting themselves: How could he argue that human life was
fully determined by material circumstances only to conclude his essay by
seeking to re-introduce the notion of moral freedom in a new and exclu-
sive form? How could he declare that political institutions did not count
in the question of vice and misery, while at the very same time arguing
for the abolition of the Poor Laws and the institution of county work-
houses? How could he deny the right of subsistence, when he had
confirmed the right of property? But the more they sought unsuccess-
fully to draw attention to his contradictions, the more they were forced
to recognise how difficult it was going to be to reverse the conceptual
revolution he had effected, for as Hazlitt himself realised, the Essay on
Population had almost single-handedly banished one notion of social
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
improvement and replaced it with another; destroying the universal
principle of revolution and replacing it with a new policy of ‘pauper
management’ that was ‘preached only to the poor’.15
Even as early as the late s, on the eve of the Malthusian revolu-
tion, a number of innovative reformers were already at large in Britain,
waiting for the opportunity to implement a change in approach. In his
 pamphlet Pauper Management Improved, Jeremy Bentham had envis-
aged reducing rural distress and lessening the parish rate by setting up a
joint stock company to organise the maintenance and employment of
the burdensome poor through a network of ‘industry houses’. A
National Charity Company would be endowed with certain coercive
powers ‘for apprehending all persons, able-bodied or otherwise, having
neither visible nor assignable property, nor honest and sufficient means
of livelihood, and detaining them and employing them till some respon-
sible person will engage for a certain time to find them employment, and
upon their quitting it, either to resurrender them, or give timely notice’.
It was also to have ‘powers of apprehending non-adults of diverse
descriptions, being without prospect of honest education, and causing
them to be bound to the company in quality of apprentices’.16
Bentham’s proposal envisaged each industry house possessing the
multiple function of a factory, hospital, bank and house of correction. It
was to police the desires of the poor, rewarding virtue and frugality, pun-
ishing idleness and vice. In this way the industry house would instil in its
inmates a set of associations, both pleasurable and painful, that would
ultimately reinforce a respect for industry and good morals. And it would
do this as much by cleansing and regulating the pauper’s environment
as by appealing to his moral sense. Bentham showed how his Panopticon
design was peculiarly suitable to the fulfilment of this function, for it
helped to construct each individual as a discrete object of surveillance,
promoting discipline and morality:
. Morality; in as far as depends upon . Discipline: for the perfection of which
there should be . Universal transparency. . Simultaneous inspectability at
all times. . [sic] On the part of the inspectors, the faculty of being visible or
invisible at pleasure. . On the part of the building, faculty of affording separa-
tion, as between class and class, to the extent of the demand, as detailed in the
last chapter. . Means of safe custody, in relation to the dangerous and other
disreputable classes. ()
Bentham’s prose is itself an industry house of language: each num-
bered cell of meaning, truncated and desiccated according to a rigorous
economy of expression, is only rendered intelligible by the larger struc-
Malthus and the population controversy 
ture that surrounds it. And his ruthlessly efficient style reflects his ruth-
lessly efficient system: at all times, he was concerned that his industry
houses should squeeze every possible drop of value out of their projected
inmates. Perhaps most significantly of all, he recommended a rigid divi-
sion and separation of labour, with every pauper working for and by
himself, so that his performance could be monitored accordingly.
Maximum value, it was supposed, would be gained from the spirit of
competition that would prevail, with Bentham holding great store by
what he called the principle of self-supply, the idea that the paupers in
an industry house would easily be able to clothe and feed themselves if
they were managed correctly. His vision was of a regime so efficient that
it would pay for itself.17
. All-employing principle. Reasons – Health, amusement, morality, (i.e.
preservation from vice and mischief) as well as economy – Not one in a hundred
is absolutely incapable of all employment. Not the motion of a finger – not a
step – not a wink – not a whisper – but might be turned to account, in the way
of profit, in a system of such a magnitude. ()
The contrast between Bentham and Malthus’s proposals for pauper
management and the utopian theories of the French Revolutionary
period is very striking. Whereas in the early s it had seemed that the
new social science would work to eradicate poverty and social inequal-
ity, after  it became increasingly clear to radicals such as Hazlitt and
Godwin that this apparently progressive and libertarian body of thought
was actually deeply complicit with the existing order. By taking the neo-
scientific methodology of Condorcet one stage further, Malthus and
Bentham had transformed it out of all recognition. Far from merely
attempting to improve the material conditions of the poorer classes, they
were also seeking to police their everyday activities more assiduously
than ever before. So much so, indeed, that it became increasingly clear
to writers like Godwin and Hazlitt that the new discourse of philosophi-
cal radicalism, for all its apparent progressivism, was actually deeply in
tune with the worst interests of the upper and upper-middle classes,
especially on the issue of pauper management, where it justified the in-
iquities of society on scientific grounds, while removing the feudal
responsibility of the rich to look after the poor.18 Malthus and Bentham
had done more than merely defend privilege socio-scientifically, they
had made it seem as if the discourse of social science was naturally and
inevitably on the side of privilege, and that any form of systematic
materalism was inextricably linked to the politics of reaction. Not
surprisingly, therefore, this elicited a fratricidal split in the broad church
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
of middle-class radicalism, driving a wedge between the growing band
of philosophical radicals and the few surviving English Jacobins. It is the
effect of this split upon their literary practice that I shall now seek to
explore.


To give money to beggars, William Godwin argued at the beginning of
his essay on the subject in The Enquirer of , was to encourage an
unedifying form of human behaviour that some scoundrels and trick-
sters had turned into a profession. Every day one was accosted on the
streets of London by beggars, and forced to yield up one’s money
begrudgingly, often unconvinced that one was dispensing one’s charity
in the proper fashion or to the proper person:
A suspicion of duty joins itself with the desire to rid ourselves of a troublesome
intrusion, and we yield to their demand. This is not, however, an action that we
view with much complacency, and it inevitably communicates a sentiment of
scepticism to the whole system.19
More than this, however, Godwin conjectured that even the indis-
criminate relief of genuine paupers might be productive of ill conse-
quences, primarily because, in the end, ‘men should be taught to depend
upon their own exertions’. And as he warmed to his theme, Godwin
rehearsed many of the arguments that Malthus was soon to make his
own: ‘To contribute by our alms to retain a man a day longer in such a
profession, instead of removing him out of it’, he argued, ‘is not an act
we can regard with much complacence’ (, ). In the first edition of
Political Justice () Godwin had insisted that it was an absolute moral
duty for the individual to follow the course of action which contributed
best to the general well-being of society as a whole. And in the first part
of the essay ‘On Beggars’ he endeavoured to follow this principle, by
arguing that, strictly speaking, one should always dispense one’s charity
to institutions designed to reform the deserving poor rather than to indi-
vidual street beggars.
In the second half of his essay, however, he performed a dramatic
volte-face, bringing the ethical implications of systematic benevolence
radically into question. Despite having conceded that it might be more
useful and hence more rational to refuse to relieve private beggars in
favour of giving to public charities, he was finally forced to add that such
difficulties and objections were ‘scarcely of such weight, as to induce a
Malthus and the population controversy 
man of feeling and humanity uniformly to withold his interference’.
Confronted with the signs of distress, was it either possible or indeed
desirable for a man to remain impervious to the appeal being made upon
his senses and sensibilities in favour of a utilitarian calculation?
Ultimately, it was surely not beneficial to make moral decisions on the
basis of such an abstract notion of philanthropy:
A virtuous man will feel himself strongly prompted to do an action, even when
there is only a probability that it may alleviate great misery, or produce exquis-
ite enjoyment. Nothing is more suspicious than a system of conduct, which,
forming itself inflexibly on general rules, refuses to take the impression, and
yield to the dictates of circumstances as they arise. (, )

Many commentators have often interpreted the works that Godwin


produced in the later s as moving away from the principle of
abstract benevolence recommended in Political Justice towards a model of
public virtue more closely grounded upon the domestic affections. And
indeed there is a fair amount of evidence for this view. In the essay ‘On
Beggars’, for example, Godwin was to comment that ‘the rule that ought
to govern us in our treatment of mankind in general seems to be best
understood in the case of kindred and relations. Here men are com-
monly sufficiently aware that, though it is possible to dispense assistance
with too lavish a hand, yet assistance may be given, in proportion to my
capacity to assist, with much advantage and little chance of injury’ (,
). Above and beyond this, however, it is possible to argue that this was
not so much a retreat from the principle of abstract benevolence as a tac-
tical shift in its mode of presentation, a change of emphasis prompted
by the rise of Benthamite utilitarianism, and not by a fundamental
change in ethical stance.20
As we saw in chapter three, even in the first edition of Political Justice
Godwin had considered ‘reason’ as the controlled exercise, rather than
the denial, of feeling. In the aftermath of the French Revolution,
however, he was often considered by radicals and reactionaries alike to
be a champion of cold rationality, and this seriously damaged his repu-
tation across the political spectrum. Mindful of this, and evidently
anxious to distinguish his notion of reason from that of Bentham and
his followers, he saw The Enquirer as an opportunity to reformulate and
in some sense to re-emphasise the conscientious aspect of his own moral
philosophy. Thus in the course of the essay ‘On Beggars’, he employed
the language of sentimental morality in order to denounce the would-
be utilitarian legislator:
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Who art thou, that assumest to deck thy brows in frowns, and to drive away the
sorrows of thy brother by imperious tones and stern rebuke? . . . the case of the
man who demands my charity in the streets is often of the most pressing nature
. . . and is therefore no proper field for experiments. (, )

By this means, he made a deliberate attempt to dissociate himself


from the enthusiasm for system-building which had characterised the
early s, and of which his own Political Justice constituted an enduring
product. He almost suggested as much in the Enquirer’s preface:
While the principles of Gallican republicanism were yet in their infancy, the
friends of innovation were somewhat too imperious in their tone. Their minds
were in a state of exaltation and ferment. They were too impatient and impetu-
ous. There was something in their sternness that savoured of barbarism. The
barbarism of our adversaries was no adequate excuse for this.21

In the second edition of Political Justice () Godwin had argued


that the central mistake of the Jacobins had been their attempt to
impose public virtue by legislative means. Appropriately enough, there-
fore, when he came to write The Enquirer in  he sought to suppress
any covert links between his writing and the tyrannical principles of the
Terror by dropping the methodical, prescriptive, not to say ‘legislative’
style which had characterised Political Justice. His ostensible purpose in
The Enquirer was still to ‘further the cause of political reform’, in that
sense, at least, he was not recanting his revolutionary principles, but
simply rehearsing his opinions more tentatively and sceptically than
before, repeating many of the insights of Political Justice in a more
deliberately piecemeal fashion: ‘The author has attempted only a short
excursion at a time’, he wrote, ‘and then, dismissing that, has set out
afresh upon a new pursuit’. The central purpose of Political Justice, of
course, had been to encourage every reader to exercise his or her
private judgment; but the treatise itself had delivered its own private
judgments in such a resolutely authoritarian ‘public’ manner, that in the
end it had developed into an extremely imposing and authoritative
edifice. In The Enquirer, by contrast, Godwin attempted to match the
medium more closely to the message, by showing the workings of
reason, but not prescribing its ultimate end. Thus he made a point of
presenting the essays contained in the volume ‘not as dicta, but as the
materials of thinking’.
In many ways, this shift was entirely characteristic of the radical
writing of the later s, for in the aftermath of the failure of the leg-
islative phase of the French Revolution, many republicans and radicals
Malthus and the population controversy 
were to find themselves returning to the more inquiring spirit of ration-
al critical debate which had characterised the bourgeois public sphere
during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Increasingly former
‘Jacobins’ moved away from pamphlets and treatises and began to con-
centrate on more imaginative and occasional writing, cultivating an
explicitly anti-systematic style which deliberately avoided any suggestion
of legislative arrogance. In part this was an attempt to counter the anti-
Jacobin charge that, like the ill-fated French, the England’s literary radi-
cals were hopelessly addicted to extremes, endlessly given to despotic
abstractions of thought and slavish excesses of feeling. In part, however,
it was also a matter of choice, a conscious decision to differentiate them-
selves not only from the constitution-mongering of the early s, but
also from the utilitarian writing of the later decade. In this respect
Godwin’s Enquirer was very much of a piece with works like
Wollstonecraft’s Letters of  and even with Wordsworth and
Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads of .
This is not to say, however, that the works of these writers were not
shot through with a perceptible and sometimes painful ambivalence
towards the new school of reform. In the essay ‘On Beggars’ for
example, Godwin was clearly deeply torn between two conflicting
desires: the desire to place the exercise of social morality upon a ratio-
nal and objective footing, and the desire for it to continue to be supple
and subjective in its operation, in other words, a ‘morale sensitive’. What
he liked about the discourse of utility was its fundamentally ‘rational’
nature; what he disliked was its rigidity and externality, its alienation
from the realm of subjective moral action. Indeed in ‘On Beggars’
utility-theory is represented as being of so systematic a nature that far
from facilitating mutual intercourse and understanding between indi-
viduals, it actually interposes itself between them, serving to render
them opaque to one another, just like the first calculations of self-inter-
est in Rousseau’s second Discours. And it was for this reason, perhaps, that
Godwin ultimately preferred to repose upon the notion of ‘conscience’
at the end of the essay. The problem was, of course, that in this formula-
tion there was little to distinguish conscience from private sentiment,
that most whimsical and arbitrary form of social feeling. One way of
according ‘conscience’ greater objective validity would have been to seek
to raise it into a form of public duty, but this would immediately have
risked repeating one of the characteristic mistakes of revolutionary
Jacobinism, which had been to try and transform it into a principle of
legislation. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the conclusion to ‘On
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Beggars’ is if anything rather conventional, a bland acquiescence in the
principle of the conscience as the best guide. So much so, indeed, that it
was only in his rehearsal and subsequent repudiation of the utilitarian
calculus that Godwin was able to advertise his continued commitment
to radical reform. Thus it was in the gap between the two halves of his
essay that the writer’s disappointed Jacobinism found expression, with
its bifurcated structure serving as a potent reminder of the extent to
which, in the aftermath of the revolutionary Terror, a split had taken
place between the politics of conscience and the ideology of legislation.
And it is in this respect that ‘On Beggars’ can be seen, above all things,
as an overdetermined denial of Robespierre, bespeaking a continuing
desire for society to be transformed into a transparent community of
feeling, while betraying an identifiably post-revolutionary anxiety about
what would happen if one sought to legislate it into existence.
In a different way, much of the poetry written by William Wordsworth
during the late s displays the same sense of revolutionary ambiva-
lence. In his blank-verse poem ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’, which
was composed in – and published in the second edition of the
Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth was to launch an explicit attack upon the
‘political economists [who] were about that time beginning their war
upon mendicity in all its forms’.22 Like Godwin, he agreed that beggars
should be indulged and relieved rather than incarcerated and reformed,
but he was also concerned to defend the principle of charity from the
onslaught of the new social science. And he did this by showing how an
old beggar might play a useful role in a rural community:
But deem not this man useless. – Statesmen! ye
Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
Who have a broom still ready in your hands
To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,
Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
Your talents, power and wisdom, deem him not
A burthen of the earth. ’Tis Nature’s law
That none, the meanest of created things,
Of forms created the most vile and brute,
The dullest or most noxious, should exist
Divorced from good, a spirit and a pulse of good,
A life and soul to every mode of being
Inseparably link’d. (lines –)

In general terms, Wordsworth’s project in the Lyrical Ballads was to


oppose the dividing and rationalising impulse of the new social science
Malthus and the population controversy 
with a philosophy propounding the interconnectedness of all things, a
creed that was implicitly democratic and egalitarian in its implications.
He implicitly resisted Bentham’s effort to mechanise human society by
recommending that it should organise itself in accordance with the
harmonious natural order. And as he was to suggest in the Preface which
he added in , poetry was one of the most appropriate ways of
opposing the progress of the dissecting intellect, because it worked indi-
rectly upon its readers, as an instrument of aesthetic education.
Appropriately enough, therefore, in ‘The Old Cumberland Beggar’
Wordsworth’s fluid and contemplative blank verse, a medium in which
everything was made to seem ‘inseparably linked’, offered a striking
counterweight to the truncated prose of Pauper Management Improved:
Where’er the aged Beggar takes his rounds,
The mild necessity of use compels
To acts of love; and habit does the work
Of reason; yet prepares that after-joy
Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul,
By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursu’d
Doth find itself insensibly dispos’d
To virtue and true goodness. (lines –)
Addressing the problem of vagrancy in a rural context, Wordsworth
seeks to suggest that beggars are a valuable part of the village commu-
nity, developing a notion of ‘use’ which is quite distinct from the princi-
ple of bourgeois exploitation outlined by Bentham. Over the years the
old beggar in the poem has been ‘used’ kindly by everyone in the village,
so that he has become the means by which the community represents its
own ‘goodness’ and ‘virtue’ to itself, and it is in this sense that he is
himself profoundly ‘useful’. In this way Wordsworth used the language
of utility against the utilitarians, suggesting that the relief of beggars in
a rural community did not necessarily lead its inhabitants to cultivate
sentiments of social protest either for or against such figures, but often
served to supply them with spiritual consolation for the material
difficulties of their own lives.
In many ways, therefore, the overall message of ‘The Old
Cumberland Beggar’ was implicitly democratic. Its assertion that ‘we
have all of us one human heart’ (line ) was clearly intended to carry
an identifiably egalitarian weight and meaning. Nevertheless, the poem’s
flirtation with the language of Christian resignation did place it in an
ambivalent relation to the discourse of reform, for from the argument
that beggars fulfilled an important role in society simply by being
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
beggars it was, of course, but a short step back to the extremely tradi-
tional affirmation – made by both Burke and the Bishop of Llandaff in
response to the famine of  – of the wisdom of God in having made
rich and poor. In this way Wordsworth showed himself to be caught
between a Benthamite interest in reform and a Burkean respect for
custom and tradition. Like its eponymous hero ‘The Old Cumberland
Beggar’ can thus be seen to wander without a home, unwilling to accept
the administrations of either the workhouse or the church, ultimately
destined to find its final resting place in a deathless but also rather
inhuman realm of Nature:
And let him, where and when he will, sit down
Beneath the trees, or by the grassy bank
Of high-way side, and with the little birds
Share his chance-gather’d meal, and, finally,
As in the eye of Nature has he liv’d,
So in the eye of Nature shall he die.
(lines –)
One of the problems with this poem, as David Simpson has pointed
out, is that in transforming the beggar into a kind of living monument
to the aesthetic education of the village, Wordsworth does tend to
neglect the extent to which he is, or was, a suffering human being in his
own right.23 He concentrates solely upon the effect the old man has upon
other people, and not upon what he is in himself. So, as the means by
which the community represents its own freedom to itself, the beggar
enables Wordsworth to represent the village poor as subjects rather than
as objects, and to resist the tendency of Benthamite pauper manage-
ment. But as a figure in himself, he is curiously hollow, only in the final
lines is there a kind of concession to his consciousness.
But what is interesting is that the Beggar is a kind of parody of the
revolutionary legislator in this respect, for like one of Rousseau’s
favoured lawgivers, he is a stranger, who comes from outside the polis in
order to raise its collective consciousness, even if unlike him, he has no
programme of his own, acting merely as the occasion for moral and
social improvement, its catalyst, as it were, rather than its active pro-
ducer. And so, precisely because of his self-conscious use of the discourse
of utility, it is difficult to believe that Wordsworth himself is not, in a
certain specific sense, ‘using’ the beggar in the course of this poem, using
him as a means of demonstrating a particular political effect – the spec-
tacle of popular civic virtue – without having to locate or identify a polit-
ical will existing prior to that effect. It is as if, like Rousseau’s Baron de
Malthus and the population controversy 
Wolmar letting Julie rule the fête, Wordsworth has sought to withdraw
himself from what was, in fact, a highly self-conscious experiment in the
literary presentation of republican feeling, so that he can give it the
appearance of customary virtue, and suppress its continuing links with
the revolutionary tradition.


On  February  the Whig minister Samuel Whitbread, attempting
to take advantage of a brief cessation of hostilities in Europe, brought
before the House of Commons a bill to reform the Poor Laws. Striving
to reduce the number of people claiming parish relief, he proposed a
plan of national education, an overhaul of the workhouse system, and
the institution of saving schemes to stimulate thrift among the labouring
classes. Not only in its content but also in its overriding tone, the bill
owed an acknowledged debt to the Essay on Population.24 Indeed in his
prefatory remarks Whitbread made a point of endorsing Malthus’s anti-
utopian vision: ‘I believe man to be born to labour’, he argued, ‘that a
certain portion of misery is inseparable from mortality and that all the
plans for the lodging, clothing, feeding of all mankind with what may be
called comfort, are quite impossible in practice.’25
Whitbread’s bill was thrown out by the Lords in August  after a
motion by Lord Liverpool, an indication of continuing Tory suspicion
towards the new social science. But the very fact that such a bill was pre-
sented to the House of Commons in the first place does tend to show the
degree of respect with which the new theories of pauper management
had already come to be regarded by influential sections of the British
Establishment. And Malthus’s reputation did nothing but grow during
the s and s. Initially his champions had been the Whigs; gradu-
ally, however, he made converts among the Tories. And whereas the
leading reviews were prepared to dismiss the writings of the republican
William Godwin as excessively rationalistic, in the far more systematic
and neo-scientific work of Malthus they saw only the disinterested
expression of truth. So respected did his Essay become, indeed, that
when the working-class radical Francis Place published his pioneering
plan of contraception in , he offered it as a supplement to the
population principle, curiously enough, rather than a refutation of it.26
There were dissenting voices, however, which interrupted the general
chorus of approval. During the s the journalist and pamphleteer
William Cobbett had been an outspoken defender of the Tory cause,
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
regularly defending the English Constitution against the accretion of
French principles. And as an independent farmer, he was one of the very
class of men whom Malthus’s proposal of poor law reform had sought
to relieve from the heavy burden of local taxation. Indeed this may have
been one of the reasons why he was initially so enthusiastic about the
Essay on Population. ‘Before the rays of Malthus’s luminous principle’, he
wrote in , ‘the mists of erroneous or hypocritical humanity instantly
vanish, and leave the field clear for the operation of reason.’27 The
presentation of Samuel Whitbread’s Poor Law Bill of , however,
produced a violent reversal in Cobbett’s sympathies. Quite simply, he
was appalled at the extent to which the Malthusian revolution had sanc-
tioned a systematic objectification of the poor.28
If a plan like this were really to be adopted, I, for my part, should not be at all
surprised, if someone were to propose the selling of the poor, or the mort-
gaging of them to the fund-holders – Aye! You may wince; you may cry Jacobin
and Leveller as long as you please. I wish to see the poor men England what the
poor men of England were when I was born; &, from endeavouring to accom-
plish this wish, nothing but the want of the means shall make me desist.29
An increasingly energetic campaigner against the deterioration of
living standards among the rural working classes during the early years
of the nineteenth century, Cobbett soon began to develop a fervent
desire to restore the independence and comparative prosperity that he
imagined them to have enjoyed in the past. So much so, indeed, that
during the course of his career, Cobbett developed an ever-growing
sense of the terrible injustices being suffered by the contemporary
labouring class, and this transformed his Toryism into a form of popular
radicalism that was ostensibly opposed to the dying tradition of French-
style Jacobinism while sharing some of its political instincts. In his ‘Letter
to Parson Malthus’ in the Political Register of  May  he responded to
Malthus’s denial of the right of subsistence by rehearsing Robespierre’s
critique of the right of property, declaring that ‘the property in land can
never be so complete and absolute as to give the proprietors the rights
of withholding the means of existence, or of animal enjoyment, from
any portion of the people; seeing that the very foundation of the
compact was, the protection and benefit of the whole’.
On this point the Tory paternalist Robert Southey agreed with
Cobbett the popular radical. In the December issue of the Quarterly
Review for  Southey published a review of Colquhoun’s Propositions
for Ameliorating the Condition of the Poor in which he suggested that the ruling
classes would be signing their own death-warrant if they abandoned
Malthus and the population controversy 
their moral responsibility to the poor. Like Cobbett, he felt that the
extremism of the Essay on Population was always in danger of expediting
the very anarchy which it professed to forestall, inadvertently reanimat-
ing the lingering ghost of revolutionary Jacobinism rather than burying
it once and for all:
The numerous claimants at Mr Malthus’s feast of nature, who, as he tells us,
‘have no right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, no business to be
there’, would very soon begin to ask the luckier guests what better title they
themselves could produce, and resort to the right of the strongest. ‘You have
had your turn at the table long enough, gentleman’, they would say, ‘and if those
who have no places are to starve, we will have a scramble for it at least.’30
What was alarming for Southey was not merely the prospect of
working-class revolution, which he saw as a very real danger, but the
insufficiency of the utilitarian response to it. Presented with the wide-
spread abjection and misery of the new industrial working class,
Malthus could only deny the people the right of subsistence, and offer a
mathematical explanation for his denial. And this led many old-style
Tories to make common cause with the popular radicals in their attacks
on philosophical radicalism.31 Indeed as the nineteenth century pro-
gressed, it was not uncommon for figures as deeply opposed as Southey
and Cobbett to be seen exchanging sparks of thought and feeling on this
issue, for as Edward Thompson has pointed out, when it came to the
workhouse ideology of Malthus and Bentham, ‘the starting point of
traditionalist and Jacobin was the same’.32
As we saw in chapter one, during the s Southey had been a fervent
republican, more outspoken in his radical sympathies than either of his
friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Wordsworth. During the
early years of the nineteenth century, however, he became increasingly
worried that the popular anarchy of the Jacobin period was going to be
reproduced in England. Like the methodists and evangelicals, he began
to look to religion as a means of tranquillising and controlling the
working classes.33 Appropriately enough, therefore, he became res-
olutely opposed to secular programmes of instruction like Whitbread’s
plan, campaigning instead for Dr Bell’s proposal for a national system of
education organised under the aegis of the Anglican Church. So much
so, indeed that by  he was regularly asserting that the only way of
preventing revolution in England was to re-introduce the Christian faith
to the cities and industrial areas of Britain, and to re-organise the dis-
pensation of charity.
Between the popular agitation of William Cobbett and the Christian
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Toryism of Southey, middle-class republicans like Hazlitt were very
uneasily caught. He shared many of their misgivings about Malthus’s
theory, but was unable to follow either of them to their final destination.
In his Reply to Malthus of  he had responded to Whitbread’s educa-
tional initiative by insisting that poverty was the result of bad govern-
ment and not a lack of formal schooling in the labouring classes: ‘we are
creatures not of knowledge’, he argued, ‘but of circumstances’ (, ).
And Cobbett had made the same point in the Political Register of 
October , declaring that while ‘the education [bill] was to produce
good morals . . . this was merely for the purpose of preventing laziness
and other vices, which more immediately tend to increase the poor-
rates’. Both Cobbett and Hazlitt agreed that Whitbread’s education plan
was not designed to supply the poor with the knowledge that would
make them free, it was merely to inform them of the extent to which
their lives were ruled by necessity. ‘Enable them to eat and drink’,
Cobbett insisted, ‘before you learn them to read and write’. And Hazlitt
was to sum up his own attitude to pauper management in remarkably
similar terms:
For my part, I place my heart in the centre of my moral system. I do not look
on the poor man as an animal, or a mere machine for philosophical or political
or economic experiments. I know that the measure of his sufferings is not to be
taken with a pair of compasses or a slip of parchment. I would rather be pro-
scribed and hunted down with him than join in his proscription by those who
made it their practice to attack the weak and cringe to the strong.34
Like Cobbett, Hazlitt refused to join in the proscription of the poor
man, but unlike him he was unable to make common cause with him
either. For despite professing a notional commitment to the classless ideal
of the French Revolution, he found it increasingly difficult to transcend
his own class bias. So that whereas Cobbett was to begin to oppose the
new school of reform by developing a vigorously ‘reactionary’ agenda
for the amelioration of the living conditions of the industrial and agrar-
ian working classes, Hazlitt adopted a position that was at once defiant
and defeatist.35 ‘What are we to do for [the poor]?’ he asked in the Reply
to Malthus when considering the question of national education, before
answering himself limply ‘the best answer would perhaps be, let them
alone’ (, ). The problem was that, from Hazlitt’s point of view,
modern initiatives seemed to fall into two categories: either they were
programmes of instruction designed to prepare the individual for his
entry into the labour market, or projects of rechristianisation intended
to provide him with a prospective consolation for its injustice and uncer-
Malthus and the population controversy 
tainty. Whichever model was chosen, education was no longer an essay
in the cultural construction of the citizen, as it had been during the
utopian moment of the French Revolution, but a blueprint for the pro-
duction of a docile subject. And this left Jacobins like him in a very
uncomfortable position with regard to the discourse of ‘improvement’:
The advantages of education in the abstract are, I fear, like other abstractions,
not to be found in nature. I thought that the rage for blind reform, for abstract
utility and general reasoning, had been exploded long since. If ever it was
proper, it was proper on general subjects, on the nature of man and his
prospects in general. But the spirit of abstraction driven out of the minds of
philosophers has passed into the heads of members of parliament: banished
from the heads of the studious, it has taken up its favourite abode in the House
of Commons . . . It has dwindled down into petty projects, speculative details
and dreams of practical, positive matter-of-fact improvement. (, )
Central to this passage is Hazlitt’s painful realisation that the dis-
course of improvement had been appropriated by a generation of politi-
cal ‘trimmers’ uncommitted to the cause of liberty and equality, whose
allegiances were not, like his, with the Jacobin ideal of the early s.
With the rise of philosophical radicalism, he recognised, the rhetoric of
revolution had given place to that of reform, and a Painite political
agenda based on the natural rights of man had ceded place, under pres-
sure from the population principle, to a Benthamite plan for regulating
the wasteful and counter-productive appetites of the poor. And
significantly, such was the baleful influence of the utilitarian revolution
that it effectively undermined Hazlitt’s own belief in the continuing
viability of the Revolutionary ideal, leaving him in the paradoxical posi-
tion of being a self-styled ‘revolutionist’ who was at one and the same
time impatient for change and yet sceptical of ‘improvement’.
To summarise, then, during the early years of the nineteenth century,
it was in the uncertain realm between the clamours of popular radical-
ism and the rechristianising programme of the Tories and Evangelicals
that middle-class republicans loyal to the libertarian ideal of the French
Revolution attempted to grapple with the rising influence of the
philosophical radicals. William Godwin, William Hazlitt and the young
William Wordsworth tried to oppose the utilitarianism of Malthus and
Bentham without succumbing to the consolations of Christian Toryism
or tumbling into the tumult of working-class politics. They attempted to
maintain a reformist attitude despite the fact that to all intents and pur-
poses the philosophical radicals had appropriated the discourse of
reform. In their very belatedness, therefore, they dramatised the slow
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
decline of middle-class republicanism in England. Nevertheless, as we
shall see, the peculiar power and intensity of an entire current of
Romantic writing can be seen to have emerged out of the very sense of
ideological discomfort and displacement that was felt by such figures.
Indeed many of the structural idiosyncrasies and thematic innovations
which characterise their work were actually produced by their forced
occupation of an uneasy, interstitial space between popular, progres-
sive and conservative positions none of which they felt capable of
embracing.
  

‘The virtue of one paramount mind’: Wordsworth and


the politics of the Mountain


Shortly after returning from France in the spring of , the young
William Wordsworth wrote a pamphlet against Richard Watson, the
Bishop of Llandaff, for having betrayed the cause of liberty. Formerly a
Foxite liberal sympathetic to the Jacobin cause, Watson had publicly
renounced his support for the Revolution when he heard of the execu-
tion of Louis XVI in January . Suitably enough, therefore, when
Wordsworth came to draft his reply, he responded to the bishop in a self-
consciously ‘republican spirit’, treating English politics as if it were a
merely an extension of the French conflict:
Conscious that an enemy lurking in our ranks is ten times more formidable than
when drawn out against us, that the unblushing aristocracy of a Maury or a
Cazalès is far less dangerous than the insidious mask of patriotism assumed by
a La Fayette or a Mirabeau, we thank you for your desertion.1
During the constitutional period Lafayette and Mirabeau had
appeared to be fervent supporters of the cause of freedom, but as the
Revolution had progressed, their complicity with the old order had been
unmasked. And it was this and other examples of political betrayal
which inspired the belligerent Girondin Jacques-Pierre Brissot to call for
the mass desertion of traitors during the war crisis of . It is notice-
able, therefore, that in charging Llandaff with a similar kind of treach-
ery as that exhibited by Lafayette and Mirabeau the young Wordsworth
was not merely attaching himself to the republican cause, he was also
showing himself to be highly conversant with the French version of ‘the
revolutionary plot’, inhabiting the Manichaean psychology of
Jacobinism, and reproducing its habits of mind.
But what was the exact nature of Wordsworth’s youthful republican-
ism? How, if at all, was it different from the general enthusiasm of many
young English radicals for the French Revolutionary cause? And how

 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
important was it to his later writing? In seeking to answer these ques-
tions, it is my contention that a fresh questioning of the poet’s early poli-
tics, in the light of what we have uncovered about the paradoxical nature
of revolutionary republicanism, can give a new perspective on his
mature poetic practice. In the eyes of most commentators, Wordsworth
was a supporter of the Girondin faction during his time in revolutionary
France, untarnished by the political extremism of Robespierre and the
Mountain.2 But as I hope to show, this is a tenuous argument, not only
because much of it is highly conjectural and anecdotal, but also because
it does not offer a convincing reading of the literary evidence.
Admittedly, Wordsworth was not explicit about his revolutionary alle-
giances in the Letter to Llandaff, but there may have been a number of
different reasons for this. It is possible that he did not see his political
commitment in factional terms. But equally, even if he had done, he
must also have known that, when addressing an English audience, the
most politic approach would be to base his argument on principles rather
than personalities. That said, however, the crucial point must surely be
that on the issues that split the revolutionary factions, the Letter to Llandaff
consistently follows the Montagnard line, refusing to condemn the 
September Massacres and defending the execution of Louis XVI.
Of course, this places Wordsworth well outside the English govern-
ment consensus of the time. For the Prime Minister William Pitt the
murder of the king was ‘the foulest and most atrocious deed which the
history of the world has yet had occasion to attest’, an action which
could be seen to ‘strike directly against the authority of all regular
government, and the inviolable person of every lawful sovereign’, giving
Great Britain no choice but to declare war.3 But it was not merely the
Establishment that responded in this way. A considerable number of
English radicals had also been troubled by the prospect of revolutionary
regicide, most notably Tom Paine, who had used his position as a deputy
of the French National Convention to beg for leniency towards ‘citizen
Capet’. It is notable, therefore, that above and beyond its opposition to
the war, the Letter to Llandaff should have sought actively and positively to
justify the principle of political violence, an extremely radical position,
even for a youthful enthusiast: ‘Alas!’, Wordsworth wrote, in a passage
reminiscent of Robespierre’s reply to Louvet, ‘the obstinacy and perver-
sion of men is such that [liberty] is often obliged to borrow the very arms
of despotism in order to overthrow them, and in order to reign in peace
must establish herself by violence. She deplores such stern necessity, but
the safety of the people, her supreme law, is her consolation’ ().
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
In the latter half of this century, there has been a current of critical
thought which has endeavoured to link Wordsworth’s youthful radical-
ism exclusively with the English republican tradition of the seventeenth
century stemming from James Harrington and the Earl of Shaftesbury.4
And the discovery of this pattern of influence has undoubtedly afforded
important new insights into his poetry, most recently in the work of
David Simpson and Nigel Leask. But somewhat surprisingly perhaps
there has been a comparative neglect of the extent to which
Wordsworth’s understanding of this tradition was mediated by the
influence of Rousseau and Robespierre. Too seldom, for example, has it
been recognised that the most fervent expressions of republican senti-
ment in the Letter to Llandaff are couched in identifiably Rousseauvian
terms. For example, in response to Llandaff’s allegation that a republic
was ‘a tyranny of equals’ Wordsworth cited a passage from the Contrat
Social suggesting that the bishop had come to love his own slavery: ‘it is
with indignation’, he wrote, ‘I perceive you “reprobate” a people for
having imagined liberty and happiness more likely to flourish in the open
field of a republic than under the shade of monarchy’ (). And he also
gave a characteristically Jacobin retort to the latter’s defence of the
British Constitution, repeating Jean-Jacques’s assertion that the English
Parliament was merely the servant of a corrupt corporate interest. But
Rousseau’s legacy to the young Wordsworth was not simply a series of
second-hand shibboleths. It actually shaped his concept of citizenship. For
Wordsworth, like Rousseau, saw the proper business of government as
the expression and execution of a unified general will, rather than the
balancing of competing interests, so that when he came to describe the
nature and purpose of representative government, he did so in markedly
anti-liberal terms, interpreting it as a necessary compromise between the
ideal of direct democracy and the size and complexity of the modern
nation state. Most significantly of all, perhaps, there was an identifiably
Rousseauvian aesthetic behind the young radical’s revolutionary vision,
as can be seen from the telling passage in which he swept aside Llandaff’s
scepticism about the viability of popular sovereignty by referring his
readers to the exemplary status of the inhabitants of Switzerland:
. . . as governments formed on [democratic principles] proceed in a plain and
open manner, their administration would require much less of what is usually
called talents and experience, that is of disciplined treachery and hoary
machiavelism; and at the same time, as it would no longer be their interest to
keep the mass of the nation in ignorance, a moderate portion of useful knowl-
edge would be universally disseminated. If your lordship has travelled in the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
democratic cantons of Switzerland you must have seen the herdsman with the
staff in one hand and the book in the other. ()
Both culturally and historically, there were many similarities between
the mountain republics of Switzerland that had been celebrated by
Rousseau and the English Lake District where Wordsworth had spent his
early youth. In both regions there survived a tradition of ‘primitive’
virtue that could be contrasted with the corruption of modern commer-
cial society. On his Alpine walking tour of  Wordsworth had taken
with him Ramond de Carbonnières’ French translation of William
Coxe’s Sketches of the Natural, Civil and Political State of Swisserland (),
which drew heavily on Saint-Preux’s reflections on the simplicity and
virtue of Alpine life in Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloïse, representing the Swiss
as a ‘happy people, the nature of whose country, and the constitution of
whose government both equally oppose the strongest barriers against the
baneful introduction of luxury’.5 And in his annotations to the translated
text, Carbonnières had actually gone beyond the rather cautious
Whiggism of his English source to offer a more thoroughly
Rousseauvian vision of the democratic nature of Swiss life. It is
significant, then, that when Wordsworth came to give a poetic account
of his travels in the mountains in the Descriptive Sketches of , he chose
to reproduce Carbonnières’s emphasis, praising the Swiss mountaineer
for fiercely guarding the freedom and independence he had inherited
from Rousseau’s ‘natural’ man: ‘The slave of none, of beasts alone the
lord, / He marches with his flute, his book, and sword, / Well taught by
that to feel his rights, prepared / With this “the blessings he enjoys to
guard”’ (lines –).
Throughout the time of the poem’s composition France had been
desperately defending its eastern borders from foreign invasion, and this
reflected itself in the highly militant tone of Wordsworth’s celebration
of the Alps as a landscape of liberty:
Even here Content has fix’d her smiling reign
With independence child of high Disdain.
Exulting mid the winter of the skies,
Shy as the jealous chamois, Freedom flies,
And often grasps her sword, and often eyes,
Her crest a bough of Winter’s bleakest pine,
Strange ‘weeds’ and Alpine plants her helm entwine,
And wildly pausing oft she hangs aghast,
While thrills the ‘Spartan fife’ between the blast.6
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
Gradually this martial emphasis was to become more pronounced, as
the poet referred to several battles which the Swiss in very small numbers
had gained over their oppressor the house of Austria:
where Freedom oft, with Victory and Death
Hath seen in grim array amid their storms
Mixed with auxiliar Rocks, three hundred forms;
While twice ten thousand corselets at the view
Dropped loud at once, Oppression shrieked and flew.
(lines –).
In this way Wordsworth’s celebration of Swiss republicanism adver-
tised itself as a thinly disguised and displaced expression of Jacobin
belligerence. And this revolutionary subtext was made all but explicit at
the end of the poem when the poet broke off from his reveries to address
himself directly to the current plight of the French Republic, expressing
the confident hope that the ‘innocuous flames’ of the present conflict
with the monarchies of Europe would result in the ‘lovely birth’ of
‘another earth’. Clearly, then, in the Descriptive Sketches Wordsworth was
using Rousseau’s vocabulary of natural independence and mountain
virtue to fuel a neo-Robespierrist zeal for ‘primitive’ regeneration. And
so too in the Letter to Llandaff his enthusiasm for the ancient ideal could
be felt in his virulent critique of modern life (‘the corruption of the
public manners [and] the prostitution which miserably deluges our
streets’) which displayed a distaste for urban dissimulation and deprav-
ity that was highly reminiscent of Rousseau’s second Discours and the
Paris sections of La Nouvelle Heloïse.
Just over ten years ago, in the course of his important study
Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination David Simpson was to make the asser-
tion that ‘implicit or explicit reference to an ideal of agrarian civic virtue
is the major organisational energy that runs through a great deal of
Wordsworth’s prose and poetry’, showing convincingly that the image of
a community of Lakeland statesmen living a life of industry, domestic-
ity and frugality had the status of a regulative principle in his work,
underpinning all of his most important utterances, if only rarely finding
full expression.7 So too in Nigel Leask’s The Politics of Imagination in
Coleridge’s Criticial Thought, published at about the same time, the agrar-
ian model was seen as providing the most convincing and coherent
explanation of Wordsworth’s politics, not only during the period of his
first collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but also in relation to
his subsequent apostasy from the cause of liberty and its effects upon his
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
poetic practice. According to Leask’s perspective, Wordsworth parted
company with the Revolution as soon as it became clear that its values
were in conflict with the highly local and provincial version of the
English commonwealth tradition upon which his agrarian politics had
always been based.8
Coherent and compelling as these accounts still are, it is my conten-
tion that it would not have been easy for such an enthusiastic fellow-trav-
eller as Wordsworth to come to such a lucid recognition, especially if we
consider his early acquaintance with Rousseau. For as we saw in the first
two chapters, by alternately extolling seventeenth-century Switzerland
and fifth-century Sparta, the author of the Contrat Social had succeeded
in blurring the distinction between civic and agrarian humanism,
merging one imperceptibly into the other. He had also obscured the rela-
tionship between property and public virtue in his paradoxical sugges-
tion that a large modern nation like France could be reinvented as if it
were a mountain republic or an ancient city state. And whereas in the
work of Encyclopédistes such as Helvétius and Holbach the modern state
was to be founded upon rational laws rather than national customs, in
Rousseau there had been a great stress upon the importance of local cir-
cumstances. In a very real sense, then, his universal template for politi-
cal revolution was a truly ‘festival ideal’ in that its vision of the
transformation of the ‘whole earth’ into a ‘favour’d spot’ always
accorded a special metonymic status to the spectacle of ‘local’ freedom
and transparency. 9 His ‘localist’ theory of legislation was very different,
in this respect, from the ‘cosmopolitan’ theory that characterised the
main current of the French Enlightenment. That said, however, it must
also be recognised that his work did still contain what we might think of
as a ‘cosmopolitan’ dimension, for regardless of the emphasis upon
gradual change and local customs in the Lettre à d’Alembert and in the
constitutional plans for Poland and Corsica, the blueprint for govern-
ment that was offered in the Contrat Social was still highly abstract and
highly prescriptive, giving the ground rules for a properly democratic
state without detailing the practical means by which it might be brought
into being. And so, by fudging the question of land and property,
Rousseau had succeeded in developing a republican vision that was at
one and the same time free from the aristocratic bias of the English
tradition of civic humanism and yet also clearly different from the liberal
bourgeois model of government favoured by the leading philosophes, a
vision which helped supply the French revolutionaries with a radically
egalitarian concept of public virtue, while also enabling English fellow-
travellers like Wordsworth and Robert Southey to reinvent the
. ‘The Sanculotte rendering homage to the Supreme Being’ (); engraving by
Aveline. A suggestively neo-Rousseauvian, quasi-Alpine inflection of the iconography
of sans-culottism, designed to coincide with the inauguration of the Cult of the
Supreme Being.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
commonwealth tradition of Harrington and Shaftesbury in uniquely
democratic and universal terms.
Of course, Simpson is right to argue that Wordsworth’s agrarian ideal
was always more coherent as a negative critique of modern life than as
a positive alternative, but we should not assume that the poet himself
was always consciously aware of this.10 Rather, we can suggest that,
throughout his poetic career, the impracticality, marginality and relative
obsolescence of this ideal – what was in effect its radical belatedness –
was often repressed, and that in texts like The Prelude as well as in early
pieces like the Descriptive Sketches, it continues to express itself in terms of
a poetics of mountain sublimity, the metaphor for an increasingly
‘unspeakable’ sign of desire. With this in mind, the following chapter will
seek to offer a reappraisal of the influence of Rousseau’s paradoxical
politics upon Wordsworth’s revolutionary poetics, an influence which
was, as I hope to show, crucially mediated by the Jacobins of –, and
most notably, by the figure of Maximilien Robespierre.


In the opening section of his Essai sur les Révolutions of – the former
émigré François René de Chateaubriand made a set of comparisons
between revolutions ancient and modern in order to place the disastrous
trajectory of the French Revolution in a meaningful historical context.
In one of a series of disconnected and desultory reflections, he linked
the extreme egalitarianism of the Jacobins with that of the ancient
Spartan legislator Lycurgus:
The Jacobins, following him step by step in their violent reforms, intended to
annihilate commerce, to eradicate literature . . . they mirrored him above all in
their requisition of property, and their preparations for the promulgation of the
agrarian law.11
Neither the Spartans nor the Jacobins had been satisfied with merely
reforming the laws, Chateaubriand argued, they had sought to create
a new kind of human being. In this respect ‘One cannot refuse the
Jacobins the awful tribute of having been consistent in their principles,
having perceived with genius that the radical vice existed in manners,
and that given the present state of the French nation, with its inequal-
ity of fortunes, its differences of opinion, it was absurd to dream of a
democracy without a complete revolution in morals.’12 Fundamentally,
he agreed with Condorcet that the Jacobins had seen their task as one
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
of public education rather than public instruction.13 But whereas the
latter had contrasted ancient and modern notions of liberty in order to
provide a clearer definition of the liberal principles upon which he
believed the progress of civilisation ought to be based, Chateaubriand
took an entirely different tack, arguing that the recurrence of the
ancient in the modern during the Jacobin period had effectively under-
mined the very possibility of social perfectibility. During the course of
his treatise, he compared the French Revolution with the revolutions
of Greece and Rome, and to a lesser extent, with the English Civil
War of the seventeenth century, developing a theory of Western history
as an endless series of repetitions, the detailed study of which would
cure the post-revolutionary generation of the dangerous taste for
innovation:
One can pronounce that the majority of things that one might have wanted to
consider as novel in the French Revolution was already to be found in the
history of the Ancient Greeks. Now we possess this important truth: that man,
feeble in his methods and his mental habits, does nothing but repeat himself
endlessly, that he gyrates in a circle, which he tries in vain to escape.14
After the Thermidorean conspiracy of , the demise of the
Jacobin régime and the subsequent end of the Grand Terror, many radi-
cals on both sides of the channel were suddenly suffused with new hope
for the future of the French Republic. But in order to bring the public
round to their way of thinking, it was necessary to counter this conserva-
tive version of revolutionary history as a disastrous series of repeti-
tions.15 In The Fall of Robespierre, which was written hastily in July of ,
Coleridge and Southey represented the recent events of the ninth of
Thermidor as a classical tragedy out of which would emerge a fairer
form of things. In according the history of Jacobinism this generic
dignity, they were implicitly opposing the assertion of writers such as
Burke and Chateaubriand that the ‘revolutionary plot’ was nothing but
a grotesque farce. However, in choosing to rewrite Robespierre’s fall as
a modern version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar they inadvertently
betrayed the inability of traditional forms and narratives to represent the
complex progress of the Revolution. During the course of the play, the
character of ‘Tallien’ represented himself as another Brutus opposing
the tyranny of the modern Caesar Robespierre, but the character of
‘Robespierre’ himself repeatedly called this analogy into question, by
identifying himself as the true Brutus to Louis XVI’s Caesar. In the
revolution itself, every new upheaval had overturned the existing struc-
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
tures of signification, transforming heroes into villains and patriots into
tyrants. In this respect The Fall of Robespierre, almost in spite of itself,
offered a vivid demonstration of how difficult it was to develop a
prospective vision of the Revolution in the aftermath of the Terror, for
in seeking to repress at the level of plot the anti-progressive nature of the
revolutionary narrative – what we might think of as its compulsive urge
to repeat – Coleridge and Southey were forced to acknowledge it at the
level of character, so that in sanctioning the endless swapping and steal-
ing of neo-classical identities they filled the stage with Brutuses who all
sounded identical, collapsing political difference by merging the
Robespierrists with their Thermidorean successors, and effectively con-
ceding Burke’s claim that there was absolutely no difference between
them.
Given the problems of narrative and agency generated by the Jacobin
phenomenon, an exaggerated emphasis upon the personal tyranny of
Robespierre was frequently deemed by republicans to be the only means
of recapturing the revolutionary momentum. In The Fall of Robespierre
this expressed itself in a speech at the beginning of act  in which the
eponymous protagonist reflected upon his revolutionary career:
Mouldering in the grave
Sleeps Capet’s caitiff corse; my daring hand
Levelled to earth his blood-cemented throne,
My voice declared his guilt, and stirred up France
To call for vengeance. I too dug the grave
Where sleep the Girondists, detested band!16
After the summer of  Robespierre was regularly used as a politi-
cal scapegoat by the French Thermidoreans and their English republi-
can allies: indeed he became the prime site for the displacement of
radical guilt and disappointment.17 And as we saw in chapter two, he
himself recognised that he was being transformed into the lightning rod
of revolutionary culpability, for as he declared on the day before his
arrest:
They are particularly determined to prove that the Revolutionary Tribunal was
a tribunal of blood, created by me alone, over which I despotised in order to
execute the virtuous as well as the vicious, because they desire to turn everyone
against me.18
In a very real sense, therefore, the campaign against Robespierre was
as much an attempt to deny the chaotic nature of French popular poli-
tics during the first five years of the Revolution as to defame the memory
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
of the ‘Incorruptible’. What could not be acknowledged by the
Thermidoreans because of the demands of the ‘revolutionary cate-
chism’ was that political life in France after  had been less like a neo-
classical drama which respected individual agency and personal
integrity and more of a grotesque popular carnival beyond the control
of public authority. Seen in this light, the Thermidorean demonisation
of Robespierre can be viewed as a means of recovering the bourgeois
ideal of active citizenship albeit in a highly negative form. Paradoxically
enough, it was only by exaggerating the power formerly possessed by the
‘Incorruptible’ that his successors could recapture a sense of their own.
In the months after Thermidor there was a great temptation among
radicals and republicans to argue that a resolutely private ambition had
lurked behind Robespierre’s apparently disinterested intervention upon
the public stage of the Revolution. Memoirs began to appear in which
a number of the martyred Girondins, as well as some of their more for-
tunate colleagues, were to draw attention to the hypocrisy and cynicism
of the so-called ‘Incorruptible’. In the Appeal to Impartial Posterity that
Madame Roland had penned in prison in the months before her execu-
tion in the autumn of  there was a detailed account of the career of
her former ally and latter-day tormentor. Roland admitted that during
the early years of the Revolution Robespierre had appeared the absolute
epitome of independent virtue, but then she went on to describe how the
frightening extent of his personal ambition had become increasingly
evident: ‘That Robespierre’, she wrote, ‘whom I once thought an honest
man, is a very atrocious being. How he lies to his own conscience! How
he delights in blood!’19 And similarly, for the former proscrit Jean-Baptiste
Louvet, Robespierre and Marat had been ‘vile imposters and infamous
royalists’ whose real purpose, in spite of all their democratic rhetoric,
had been nothing less than the restoration of despotism.20 In English
literary circles Helen Maria Williams was to provide the main conduit
of this current of republican feeling, representing Robespierre to the
British reading public as a ‘foul fiend’ whose performance at the Festival
of the Supreme Being of  had been the most consummate feat of
‘impious mockery’. For other English radicals, however, the real enemy
was the English Prime Minister William Pitt, whom they considered to
have effectively brought the Terror into being through his zealous
prosecution of the French war. Shifting his ground from the position he
had adopted in the Fall of Robespierre, Coleridge was to give a broadly
sympathetic account of Robespierre’s character in his Bristol lectures of
, accepting the paradox that he had become a tyrant in order to
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
destroy tyranny, while continuing to argue that his ends may not have
been ignoble, even though he had certainly lost them in the means: ‘the
ardor of undisciplined benevolence seduces us into malignity’,
Coleridge wrote, ‘and wherever our hearts are warm, and our objects
great and excellent, intolerance is the sin that does most easily beset us’.21
Pitt, on the other hand, was treated with unmitigated scorn. And John
Thelwall struck a similar note in an article written for The Tribune in the
same year when he made an extended comparison between the charac-
ters of Robespierre and the Prime Minister, differentiating between the
‘incorruptible’ public-mindedness of the former and the cruelty and
servility of the latter, before concluding that ‘Robespierre had a mind
too great to be debauched by anything but ambition.’22
It is in the context of this double vision of Robespierre – as hypocrite
and enthusiast – that we should interpret Wordsworth’s attempt to
represent the Revolution as tragedy in his gothic melodrama The
Borderers of . This was Wordsworth’s first extended examination of
the republican phase of the French Revolution after the Terror, and it
showed its author to be deeply aware of the questions it raised con-
cerning notions of narrative and agency. The two ‘revolutionary’ char-
acters in the play, Rivers and Mortimer, are members of a band of
medieval outlaws opposed to the injustices of the feudal order. Mortimer
is in love with Matilda, but Matilda’s father Herbert has forbidden her
to marry an outlaw. The play opens with the hypocritical misanthrope
Rivers telling Mortimer that Herbert is not Matilda’s real father. He then
suggests that Herbert and the aristocratic tyrant Clifford are conspiring
to compromise her virtue, and proceeds to play upon Mortimer’s anxi-
eties about this imagined plot by describing how Herbert has attempted
to destroy his reputation with Matilda:
. . . he coins himself the slander
With which he taints her ear. – For a plain reason:
He dreads the presence of a virtuous man
Like you, he knows your eye would search his heart
Your justice stamp upon his evil deeds
The punishment they merit. – All is plain.23
Following in the footsteps of the patron saint of apostasy, Herbert has
tainted the ear of another innocent Eve. As a secret traitor to the cause
of freedom it is therefore fitting that he should inspire an especially
violent loathing in its more fervent adherents. Thus the hypocritical
revolutionary Rivers calls upon Mortimer to make Herbert’s slanders
public. He shows him the ideal of public virtue to which he must aspire
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
if he is to ascend to the realm of independence and reason, depicting
justice as a way of seeing rather than a legal procedure, a summary judg-
ment rather than a slow sifting of evidence. In this way Rivers effectively
encourages Mortimer to adopt the political psychology of the Terror:
– passion, then,
Shall be a unit for us – proof, oh no,
We’ll not insult her majesty by time
And place – the where, the when, the how and all
The dull particulars whose intrusion mars
The dignity of demonstration. (, ii. –)

Like the perpetrators of the laws of Prairial, Rivers is convinced that


the dull particulars of bourgeois jurisprudence should be abandoned in
order that the truth can assert itself passionately and spontaneously. So
with increasing fervour he urges Mortimer to execute Herbert, declar-
ing that such an act would have ‘virtue for a thousand lives’. And he
counters Mortimer’s misgivings by offering his own version of the
Robespierrist equation of terror and virtue:
Benevolence that has not the heart to use
The wholesome ministry of pain and evil
Is powerless and contemptible. (, I. –)
In parodying the language of revolutionary paradox, its confident
confusion of opposites, Wordsworth emphasises its profound absurdity.
And yet he also manages to evoke the dangerous sublimity of its rhetoric.
Soon after, having been convinced by Rivers of the need for a universal
purge, Mortimer responds bitterly to news that the king has agreed to a
reform of the constitution: ‘The deeper malady is better hid –’, he tells
his men, ‘The world is poisoned at the heart’ (, iii. –). Yet his
attempts to commit himself to revolutionary regeneration are remark-
ably unsuccessful. In act  he abandons Herbert to God’s judgment,
leaving him out on a wild heath at night, his resolution to administer
justice having been broken by the stirrings of his ‘natural’ compassion.
Anticipating Herbert’s imminent death, Rivers reveals his innocence
to Mortimer, and makes a confession of his own former crimes. While
on a sea voyage in his youth Rivers had been persuaded by his shipmates
into abandoning their captain on a desert island, only becoming aware
that the latter was innocent of the crimes attributed to him when it was
too late to return and save his life. Thus, as he himself partly under-
stands, it was to dispel his overwhelming sense of guilt that he threw
himself into criminal activity. In the  preface to The Borderers
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Wordsworth embarked upon a further explanation of this phenomenon,
describing Rivers rather succinctly as a man who ‘commits new crimes
to drive away the memory of the past’.24 In a striking anticipation of
Sigmund Freud’s concept of ‘the urge to repeat’ he then went on to
explain that ‘in every course of criminal conduct every step that we
make appears a justification of the one that preceded it, it seems to bring
back the moment of liberty and choice’ ().25 So by persuading
Mortimer to murder an entirely innocent man, Rivers believes that he
will be able to master his own crime by causing another to repeat it:
‘Henceforth’, he says, at the beginning of act , ‘I’ll have him / A
shadow of myself, made by myself ’ (, ii. –). In this way he considers
that he will be able to make Mortimer and to have him, to rediscover his
own identity by possessing his own copy, with Mortimer becoming the
shadow against which he will define his newfound sense of freedom.
And so, like the authorial self writing the life of the autobiographical
subject, Rivers rehearses his former experiences in order to master them.
He is unlike an autobiographer, of course, in that his replotting of his
former crime represents not so much a creative revision as a simple
replication of himself, with the result that his act of repetition serves only
to reconfirm his enslavement to the past.
At the very climax of the play, Mortimer does cause the death of
Herbert, but only accidentally. He forgets to leave him his scrip of food
when he abandons him on the heath. Like Rivers before him, there was
no coherent intention behind his action. Momentarily sympathetic to
Mortimer’s predicament, Rivers encourages him to see this experience
as a rite of passage: ‘Enough is done to save you from the curse / Of
living without knowledge that you live’ (, iii. –). In this phrase,
revolution is depicted in terms of a fortunate fall from nature into self-
consciousness. It is as if it is only by murdering the Father that the revolu-
tionary son can come to a fuller understanding of the true nature of
agency and identity. Mortimer cannot bind himself to his deed, however,
and nor can he believe that he is capable of redemption. After confess-
ing the truth to Matilda, he resolves to wander the earth ‘till heaven in
mercy strike me / With blank forgetfulness, that I may die’ (, iii. –).
He exiles himself from civil society, considering himself to have com-
mitted an unforgivable crime against nature: ‘I am curst’, he announces
before his departure, ‘All nature curses me and in my heart / Thy curse
is fixed’ (, iii. –).
In the past The Borderers has often been seen as a critique of the revolu-
tionary subversion of the traditional hierarchies of society.26 According
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
to this view of things, the old, blind and dispossessed aristocrat Herbert
is the ailing embodiment of Burke’s ‘second nature’, exhibiting all of the
piety, loyalty and family feeling that the latter thought the Jacobins had
sought to destroy. But while the play does encourage us to think of
Mortimer’s action as a crime against ‘nature’, it does not attempt to ‘nat-
uralise’ the aristocratic order. Many of the anti-feudal sentiments in the
play are given to the hypocritical Rivers, but the sections dealing with
the tyranny of Clifford and the servility of Robert still represent a
fervent critique of ancient despotism. In this sense Wordsworth’s
‘nature’ still has more in common with the festival vision of Rousseau
than with the hierarchical concept developed by Edmund Burke.
Contrary to the emphasis of most commentators, then, The Borderers is
not unequivocally critical of Jacobin politics, for ultimately it offers us
two contrasting figures of the Robespierrist revolutionary. In Rivers
Wordsworth shows a Terrorist in whom private speculation lurks
beneath the mask of public virtue. His fellow borderers come to realise
that ‘Power is life to him / And breath and being; where he cannot
govern / He will destroy’ (, iv. –). And indeed, behind his rhetoric
of regeneration, he is driven only by self-seeking ambition. To this
extent, he closely resembles the representations of Robespierre in the
Girondin memoirs of the period. In Mortimer, however, Wordsworth
describes with some sympathy the workings of a mind genuinely
seduced by the ideology of the Terror in his resistance to an identifiably
Gothic social order. He is another version of the Robespierrist revolu-
tionary, a figure of radical sensibility rather than cold rationality, a mis-
guided enthusiast rather than a selfish hypocrite. And what renders The
Borderers a subtler exploration of the psychic structure of Jacobinism
than The Fall of Robespierre is its awareness of this doubleness within
revolutionary narrative, its complex dynamic of passive suffering and
active repetition. Wordsworth does more than simply contrast the com-
pulsive and misanthropic Rivers and the enthusiastic and benevolent
Mortimer – Madame Roland’s Robespierre with that of Coleridge – he
suggests that there is a profound kinship between them. In this way he
makes it clear that both men are haunted by the ideal of the public man,
by an image of autonomy and subjectivity that is forever beyond their
grasp. Like the French Jacobins, Wordsworth’s protagonists pursue their
ideal of political legitimacy by identifying with one another, by striving
to situate themselves within a self-enclosing circle of fraternity, seeking
identity in duplicity, and integrity in self-duplication. However, as they
both come to recognise, revolutionary action leads not to the collective
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
achievement of self-presence, but to the isolating experience of aliena-
tion and self-division:
Action is transitory, a step, a blow –
The motion of a muscle – this way or that –
’Tis done – and in the after-vacancy
We wonder at ourselves like men betray’d.
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark
And has the nature of infinity. (, iv. –)
Thus in spite of Wordsworth’s continuing republican sympathies, the
conclusion to The Borderers finally offers an essentially reactionary vision
of revolution, depicting it as a fundamentally passive experience, a form
of tragic repetition. And this must have been at least partly to do with
the very constraints of the dramatic genre itself, which precisely because
of its fundamentally classical conception of the nature and scope of
human action was in many ways peculiarly unsuited to resolving the
problem of duplicity and self-division at the heart of revolutionary ex-
perience. As I hope to show, in his autobiographical epic The Prelude of
, Wordsworth was to find a narrative structure within which the
revolution could be represented not successively but simultaneously as a
disastrous crime against nature and a paradigim for the acquisition of
freedom and self-consciousness, where revolutionary duplicity, in other
words, took on a new and more positive character. For the autobio-
graphical mode provided a means by which Wordsworth was able to
have it both ways, ostensibly repudiating the revolutionary legacy while
surreptitiously redeeming it, and it is in this specific sense, as I hope to
demonstrate, that The Prelude can be seen as a fundamentally Jacobin
poem against Jacobinism.


In his important study Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years, Nicholas
Roe has given an exhaustive account of Wordsworth’s political trajec-
tory in the revolutionary decade, supplying his work with a richer his-
torical context than ever before. There are problems, however, with his
use of The Prelude of  as an index of the poet’s state of mind during
the s. Firstly, such a strategy does not take into account the change
in Wordsworth’s political opinions in the intervening years, the extent to
which the rapid progress of the English counter-revolution had blighted
his radical enthusiasm and driven it underground. Secondly, and
perhaps just as importantly, it does not pay sufficient attention to the
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
question of genre. For example, a distinction should really be drawn
between the retrospective of the Jacobin period contained in book  of
Wordsworth’s epic autobiography and the ‘revolutionary plot’ of a
gothic melodrama such as The Borderers, and this is as much a question
of form as of content, for while the latter remains constrained by the
formal requirements of dramatic narrative, The Prelude dovetails the
traditional quest motif of classical epic and romance with the generic
model of confessional autobiography developed by Rousseau, effectively
remaking the French Revolution by transforming it into a habit of mind.
When investigating the political ideology of a literary work it is impor-
tant to remember that we have try to account for it as well as to explain
it. And in order to emphasise this difference, it is helpful to remind our-
selves of Michel Foucault’s celebrated distinction between the history of
thought and the historical study of discourse. Whereas the former
attempts to establish what past statements meant to say, Foucault argues,
‘the analysis of the discursive field is orientated in a quite different way’
We must first grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrence;
determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correla-
tions with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other
forms of statement it excludes.27

In the field of Romantic studies, Alan Liu’s virtuosic monograph


Wordsworth: The Sense of History is one of the most successful applications
of this theory of ‘emergence’ to have appeared in recent years. Drawing
heavily on the work of Macherey, Liu argues that many of the leading
literary texts of the romantic period emerge ‘precisely through a critical
or second-order negation: the arbitrary but nevertheless determined
differentiation by which they do not articulate historical contexts’, where
the discursive breaks and generic instabilities within these texts, their
characteristic forms of refusal, become an important component of
their ultimate historical meaning. In Liu’s eyes, Wordsworth’s Prelude is
one of the best examples of this phenomenon, precisely because it con-
stitutes such a strong denial of the invasiveness of history that it cannot
help but represent, in a dialectical sense, one of history’s deepest realisa-
tions.28 Thus he argues that Wordsworth’s refusal to give a properly ref-
erential account of the Jacobin period in The Prelude is so
over-determined that it actually gives us a remarkable insight into the
historical narrative that he is unwilling or unable to tell.
In his analysis of The Prelude Liu is superbly attentive to the role of
genre in determining what can and cannot be said at a particular time.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
The problem is, however, that in offering autobiography as the literary
form most suited to the denial of history, he often neglects the extent to
which particular genres like autobiography can become politicised in
historically specific ways. Hence he tends to regard Wordsworth’s verse
epic as a text existing always already well outside the terms of the revolu-
tion debate. And when he does gesture towards politics in relation to The
Prelude, it is in casual acceptance of James Chandler’s thesis that by 
the poet had become a disciple of the Burkean counter-revolution,
agreeing with Chandler that ‘the creed of Wordsworth’s “spots of time”
was an ideology against ideology’ while also seeking to make the point
that ‘the influence behind such ideology was not only Burke’s philoso-
phy of prejudice applied against a specific French philosophy but also a
pre-philosophical exercise of denial – an effort by the Imagination to
contain the phenomenal event that most seized Imagination at the time
of its composition’ (). Now, to my mind at least, one of the difficulties
with a reading such as this, which represents The Prelude as a ‘reactionary’
negation of revolutionary history, is that it fails to acknowledge the
extent to which, in the wake of Rousseau’s Confessions, fully wrought
autobiography was, at least during the early years of the nineteenth
century, a dangerously radical form in both Britain and France, not least
because of its continuing potential to challenge existing notions of the
relationship between private reflection and public politics, the individ-
ual personality and history. Hence the rest of this chapter is designed to
challenge the view that The Prelude of  constitutes a counter-revolu-
tionary ‘denial’ of revolutionary Jacobinism, and that it represents an
early anticipation, in confessional form, of the Burkean ideology of
custom and tradition that was later put forward in The Excursion. On the
contrary, I want to argue, a detailed analysis of Wordsworth’s manipula-
tion of autobiographical form will help to show that in The Prelude
‘denial’ is a rhetorical strategy with an identifiably radical purpose,
emerging clearly out of the revolutionary tradition of confession fos-
tered by Rousseau and Robespierre.
Of course, in order to argue for the continuing influence of Rousseau
upon Wordsworth’s poetic maturity one has to negotiate at least one
major difficulty, the fact that after the mid-s Wordsworth hardly ever
refers to him, either in his literary work or in his private letters. As
Jacques Voisine noted, the poet demonstrates ‘a surprising muteness’29
on the subject, especially when one considers his early enthusiasm for
the ‘Citizen of Geneva’, and their shared interest in primitivist republi-
canism. Now there are, of course, a number of possible reasons for this
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
curious silence. One is that Rousseau’s increasing notoriety after 
naturally caused cautious radicals like Wordsworth to become wary of
citing him as an influence. Another interpretation, more favourable to
James Chandler’s thesis, is that by the late s the poet had effectively
dismissed Rousseau as a false and deluded thinker, having already begun
to move away from radical politics. But perhaps the most compelling
explanation of all is the one put forward by W. J. T. Mitchell, who has
argued that the over-determined absence of Rousseau from
Wordsworth’s mature poetic practice is a matter of profound literary
and political significance. In the case of a text like The Prelude, he sug-
gests, the repression of Rousseau’s influence actually functions as an
organising principle of the poetic narrative, with Wordsworth taking
every possible opportunity to differentiate himself, both as a pioneering
autobiographer and as an autobiographical subject, from Jean-Jacques’
example, precisely because of his growing anxiety about the underlying
parallels – both philosophical and biographical – that might be seen to
link him to the ‘father’ of the Revolution. In this interpretation of things,
Mitchell imagines Wordsworth to have become gradually convinced, as
time went on, by the terms and inferences of Burke’s attack on
Rousseau’s ‘revolutionary’ vanity, but also to have become increasingly
aware that there were certain elements in his own former life and work
that were vulnerable to the same critique: after all, in looking back upon
his early career, Wordsworth could not have failed to notice that, not
only had he once been deeply sympathetic to Rousseau’s primitivist pol-
itics, but also that he too, like Jean-Jacques, had been a wanderer, a
vagabond, and an absentee father. Thus one way of making sense of the
poetic narrative of The Prelude, Mitchell suggests, is to see it as a piece of
writing expressly designed to differ from the example of Rousseau, with
this difference manifesting itself both thematically, in terms of a deliber-
ate swerving away from The Confessions’ candid treatment of sexuality,
and also formally, in terms of a deliberate eschewal of the latter’s
famously familiar prose style.30
In many ways, of course, this conception of The Prelude as a self-con-
sciously English negation of its French ‘Jacobin’ predecessor could be
seen to provide a perfect supplement to Liu’s notion of the poem as a
overdetermined ‘denial’ of recent history, where Rousseau’s Confessions
becomes just another part of the revolutionary experience that
Wordsworth wanted to repress. But there is more to it than that. For
while there is undoubtedly much evidence to suggest the deliberate
suppression of the influence and example of The Confessions in The
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Prelude, there are also a number of ways in which Wordsworth’s poem
can be seen to draw surreptitiously upon the rhetorical model of its
notorious predecessor, and upon the continuing radical potential of first-
person narrative itself. For above and beyond its repudiation of the tone
and address of Rousseau’s autobiography, it is actually structured by the
same oscillating dynamic of confession and self-exculpation, wherein
the avowal of guilt is used over and over again as a means of affirming
individual agency and identity. And so, just as in the episode of Marian
and the ribbon in book  of The Confessions, where Rousseau begins by
confessing everything and yet ends up by finding himself guilty of
nothing, Wordsworth’s re-staging of his own revolutionary history in
books – involves him first of all acknowledging his former political
errors, then displacing them on to the scapegoat figure of Robespierre,
before finally recuperating many of the central elements of
Rousseauvian republicanism in a suitably subdued and repatriated
form, as a kind of Jacobin ‘parasite’ inside an English ‘host’. There is
thus a fundamental duplicity about The Prelude: at the level of polemic it
launches a violent critique upon the Jacobin phenomenon, a critique
which is, in the broadest sense at least, quite compatible with Burkean
conservatism; but at the same time, in the profoundly ‘revolutionary’
conduct of its narrative, and also in its endlessly unstable patterns of
identification, there is much to suggest a tacit renegotiation and reloca-
tion of the republican ideal. And the fact that, in the  version at
least, Wordsworth never refers explicitly either to Rousseau or to Burke
is very suggestive in this respect, for not only does it hint that he may
have found it practically impossible to choose between these two figures
at that moment in time, to define himself either for or against the revolu-
tion as a historical phenomenon, it also suggests that it might have been
absolutely crucial to his autobiographical and political project that he
should retain a certain indirectness of manner when tracing its course,
not so much because he wanted to ‘deny’ history per se, but because he
wanted to escape from the fixed terms of the revolution debate. Or, to
put it another way, it may be possible to argue that it was precisely by
exploring the experience of revolutionary duplicity, by adopting an atti-
tude to the Revolution which was simultaneously one of affirmation and
denial, that Wordsworth sought to rediscover some of the enviable
energy of revolutionary republicanism, attempting to salvage the
utopian impulse of the early s by actively re-inhabiting its
Manichean division of mind.
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 

In the prose introduction to his Poems of  Wordsworth was to
describe the Imagination, the agent of all creative perception, as funda-
mentally figurative in nature. For him the human mind came to knowl-
edge by a process of conferral and abstraction, constantly refiguring and
reinventing its environment. And these figurings worked according to
strict laws, with the natural world sustaining and legitimating certain
identifications and generalisations, which could then provide the basis
for a general consensus on the nature of things. With some of the social
and economic developments of his time, however, most notably the
onset of industrialisation and urbanisation, Wordsworth felt that ‘the
healthful state of association’ that used to exist between man and nature,
and hence between man and man, was increasingly being disturbed,
thus bringing the very possibility of social consensus into question.31
Under contemporary conditions, he feared, the Imagination was
becoming increasingly rebellious and rootless, refiguring the world in
ways that were not licensed by the visible nature of things in themselves,
to the obvious detriment of the nation’s moral and spiritual life. And the
only remedy to this situation, according to him, lay in a return to the
traditional conditions of rural existence, for nature alone offered an
environment which was at once both full of change and yet unchanging,
supplying endless opportunities for the exercise of the figurative faculty,
while at the same time keeping it in close communion with the perma-
nent forms of things.32
In many ways The Prelude of  can be seen as an anticipation of this
theory of the imagination in autobiographical form. In its early books
the poet describes the moral influence of the natural sublime upon his
youthful self ‘purifying thus / The elements of feeling and of thought,
/ And sanctifying, by such discipline, / Both pain and fear until we
recognise / A grandeur in the beatings of the heart’ (, –). In the
celebrated boat-stealing passage from book , for example, he depicts the
sudden appearance of a mountain out of the darkness of the lake as a
form of admonition:
. . . and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Work’d with a dim and undetermin’d sense
Of unknown modes of being . . . (, –)
Seen in this light, the early books of The Prelude can be read in terms
of the ongoing struggle of the infant to grasp and realise its ‘unknown
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
modes of being,’ the abstract intimations of early childhood that are also
intimations of abstraction. According to the eighteenth-century psy-
chologist David Hartley, it was through the gradual generalisation of
sense perceptions that the human mind developed the capacity to figure
abstract ideas. To borrow the explanatory terms employed by John
Barrell, Hartley imagined the developing mind moving from a percep-
tion of such things as ‘lofty cliffs’ to the eventual entertainment of what
might be termed ‘lofty thoughts’, which would later manifest itself in
terms of a graduation from the language of sense to the language of
morality and from the language of nature to the language of politics. As
Barrell has shown, in a poem such as ‘Tintern Abbey’ Wordsworth can
be seen to ‘use’ the figure of his sister Dorothy to signify this graduation,
for in its closing section he represents himself as having ascended to the
world of abstract thought, while she is seen as remaining in the more
infantile world of sense perceptions. In this way she fulfils a double func-
tion, simultaneously reminding him of his past self and also confirming
his present superiority.33
The value of this grounding of abstract thought in the particularities
of nature is addressed in the ‘London’ books of The Prelude, in which the
poet reflects upon the perniciousness of modern commercial society in
a way that is highly reminiscent of Rousseau. In the modern city, accord-
ing to Wordsworth, personal integrity has been replaced by mere
theatricality:
Folly, vice,
Extravagance in gesture, mien, and dress,
And all the strife of singularity,
Lies to the ear, and lies to every sense,
Of these, and of the living shapes they wear,
There is no end. (, –)
Individuality in the modern city has been transformed into a theatri-
cal performance, an assemblage of external effects, so that the individ-
ual is forced to wander outside of the realm of his personality in order
to distinguish himself from the crowd. But the problem is that every
other member of the crowd is striving to make themselves noticed too,
so that in the desperate desire to signify, each is forced into an endless
competition against all. Signification escalates and multiplies into mean-
inglessness. Far from expressing personal character, this parade of
‘gesture, mien and dress’ merely obscures it. And ultimately this
commodification of the self serves to create an atmosphere of mutual
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
incomprehension and moral confusion, of which Bartholomew Fair is
the absolute type:
Oh, blank confusion! and a type not false
Of what a mighty City is itself
To all except a Straggler here and there,
To the whole swarm of its inhabitants;
An undistinguishable world to men,
The slaves unrespited of low pursuits,
Living amid the same perpetual flow
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end;
Oppression, under which even highest minds
Must labour, whence the strongest are not free!
(, –)

Substantially this passage is a meditation on the corrupting influence


of commerce, in which the word ‘objects’ can be seen to signify both the
commodities that enslave and alienate human labour, and the human
aims that identify themselves with those self-same commodities. It
depicts a system in which the ‘slaves’ of a mighty city are doomed to
pursue the commodity through a system of circulation that is without
‘end’. Moreover, this purposeless and ceaseless activity oppresses the
middle-class poet as much as the urban worker ‘unrespited of low pur-
suits’, for as our eye moves from the end of one line to the beginning of
another, we are surprised to find that in the city ‘even highest minds /
Must labour’ under its noxious influence. Only the steadiest and most
superior of spirits are able to resist:
But though the picture weary out the eye,
By nature an unmanageable sight,
It is not wholly so to him who looks
In steadiness, who hath among least things
An under sense of greatest; sees the parts
As parts, but with a feeling of the whole.
(, –)

Wordsworth clearly intends for us to identify this figure with the poetic
narrator himself, as he rises above the distracting details of the city to
attain ‘a feeling of the whole’, his memories of the Lake District serving
to root and tether his imagination in a way that enables him to remain
steady while all about him is turning. And in the following book of The
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Prelude this steadying process is made explicit. Returning to the Lake
District after the disappointments of London, he comes into his moral
and political inheritance. He describes meeting a mountain shepherd
whom he has known since his early youth, and then proceeds to offer this
shepherd as the supreme embodiment of the agrarian humanist ideal,
an emblem of independence and virtue and a bulwark against the accre-
tions of modern corruption.
Man free, man working for himself, with choice
Of time, and place, and object; by his wants,
His comforts, native occupations, cares,
Conducted on to individual ends
Or social, and still follow’d by a train
Unwoo’d, unthought-of even, simplicity,
And beauty, and inevitable grace. (, –)
Here the world of facts, what Rivers considered ‘time / And place –
the where, the when, the how and all / The dull particulars’ of existence,
provide the foundation of the shepherd’s mental and moral freedom.
And as with the figure of the ‘statesman’ in the letter that Wordsworth
penned to Charles James Fox in , his ownership of ‘little properties’
provides a moral ground for the exercise of social virtue ‘with choice /
Of time and place and object’.34 Whereas the city-dweller is forever
chasing his own tail in a whirling confusion of objects and objectives, the
shepherd has a consistency of purpose that is commensurate with the
fixity of the natural objects that surround him. And while making it clear
that the shepherd’s virtue is grounded upon a specific set of conditions,
Wordsworth clearly offers him for general emulation. Even as the poet
celebrates his particularity, he cannot resist transforming him into a
general ideal. In this respect he is presented in a remarkably similar way
to the ‘natural man’ in the Descriptive Sketches.
So, then, while clearly immune to the seductions of cosmopolitanism
– the free-floating desire of the modern commercial order – the auto-
biographical subject of book  is nevertheless tempted by the possibil-
ity of universalising the local ideal, of regenerating the modern world
according to the ancient civic model. And indeed in book  of The
Prelude Wordsworth actually suggests it was the accumulated experiences
of natural sublimity in his early childhood that served to predispose him
to revolutionary enthusiasm, making free reference to the fact that long
acquaintance with ‘Familiar presences of awful Power’ had served ‘to
sanction the proud workings of the soul, / And mountain liberty’ (,
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
–). And so, the sense of freedom eventually gave rise to the notion
of Freedom, or to put it in another and slightly more disconcerting way,
the final result of the episode of the mountain in book , we might
suggest, was an enthusiasm for Montagnard politics.
Taken as a whole, the revolutionary books of The Prelude depict the
dreadful consequence of abstract enthusiasm sundering itself from the
world of particulars. During the period of his first residence in France,
the occupation of the realm of ‘lofty thoughts’ enabled the poet to
develop a general commitment to liberty and equality, but ultimately this
led him away into the vertiginous moral ‘despair’ of revolutionary
Jacobinism. The poet then describes how, on returning to England after
the débâcle of the Terror, his sister Dorothy’s childlike fascination with
nature inspired him to reacquaint himself with its details. He tells how
she supervised his slow convalescence from Jacobinism by reconnecting
his abstract thoughts to the world of particular things, deconstructing
‘Freedom’ into the local freedoms that are specific to a particular time
and place. In this way she helped him to palliate and repatriate his
republican idealism, by tempering its former sublimity and by relocat-
ing it in an explicitly English context: ‘I too exclusively esteem’d that
love, / And sought that beauty,’ he remarks, ‘which, as Milton sings, /
Hath terror in it’ acknowledging to his sister that she was responsible for
softening down this ‘over-sternness’ (, –, ). Appropriately,
the paradigmatic landscape of liberty shifts from the terrifying and
sublime spectacle of Switzerland which he had described in the
Descriptive Sketches of , to the gentler and more beautiful mountain
scenery of the Lake District that he was to celebrate in his Description of
the Scenery of the Lakes of . Thus in books  and  of The Prelude,
Wordsworth describes how Nature helped to restore the Imagination
after the psychological and political crisis of the French Revolution, refo-
cussing and redirecting his Jacobin universalism into a specifically
English form of agrarian humanism.
Beyond this narrative of public disappointment and private retreat,
however, there is something disingenuous in Wordsworth’s treatment of
the visionary faculty which advertises its enduringly radical nature. In
the description of the ascent of Snowdon which forms the climax of The
Prelude he describes how the nocturnal cloudscape that he witnessed in
the mountains came to seem ‘the perfect image of a mighty Mind’, an
emblem of the perfect fit between Nature and Imagination in the tran-
scendental realm of absolute reality:
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
The Power which these
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus
Thrusts forth upon the senses, is the express
Resemblance, in the fulness of its strength
Made visible, a genuine Counterpart
And Brother of that glorious faculty
Which higher minds bear with them as their own.
(XIII, –).
In the relative peace and liberty of the British landscape, the ‘glorious
faculty’ of the Imagination has finally found its ‘Brother’ in Nature, a
mirror image of itself which serves to confirm its power and sanction its
poetic activity. And hard upon the heels of this triumphal moment there
comes a passage on the Imagination which recapitulates the epic quest
of the poem as a whole:
This faculty hath been the moving soul
Of our long labour: we have traced the stream
From darkness, and the very place of birth
In its blind cavern, whence is faintly heard
The sound of waters; follow’d it to light
And open day, accompanied its course
Among the ways of Nature; afterwards
Lost sight of it, bewilder’d and engulph’d,
Then giving it greeting, as it rose once more
With strength, reflecting in its solemn breast
The works of man and face of human life,
(, –).
During the revolutionary books the poet confessed that his moral
confusion was caused by the active misuse of the figurative faculty. He
admitted that it was a period during which ‘Imagination’ had itself
become ‘false’ by overreaching its bounds and identifying itself with a
destructive enthusiasm to renovate the world. In this passage from book
 however, Wordsworth seems to suggest that during the Revolution
Imagination was not so much a bloodthirsty activist as an innocent in
hiding, so that like the ‘conscience’ in Rousseau’s Confessions, it effectively
bides its time, waiting for the moment to re-emerge spotless and without
taint from beneath the grime of history, its recent errors fortuitously for-
gotten and effaced. Just as we had come to think of Imagination as a
mortified Mortimer, repenting former crimes, it reappears as a resurgent
Rivers, seeking to banish past guilt. In this respect the river of the
Imagination is more successful than the Rivers of Wordsworth’s early
play, for its re-emergence on Mount Snowdon actually does seem to
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
bring back the moment of liberty and choice. For in this passage it re-
presents itself as a ‘legislative’ power which predates the executive errors
of the Jacobin period, an enshrinement of the spirit of the past for future
restoration.
In his seminal study Wordsworth’s Second Nature James Chandler has
seen The Prelude as a poem in which the Imagination is chastened and
subdued by the débâcle in France into a recognition of the value of
British customs and institutions, laying aside the primitive ‘nature’ of
revolutionary ideology in favour of the traditionary principle of ‘second
nature’ developed by Edmund Burke.35 And indeed Burke’s version of
the Revolution, and of Rousseau’s role within it, did become increas-
ingly influential in the post-revolutionary period. But Wordsworth
himself was remarkably slow to accede to this trend. For many years he
preferred to suffer in political isolation rather than identify himself with
the growing counter-revolutionary consensus. The outbreak of the
Peninsular War came as a veritable godsend in this respect, since in rising
to defend the principle of Spanish independence he could at long last
wholeheartedly align himself with the national crusade against
Napoleon while continuing to remain true to his libertarian instincts.
Nor did this necessitate a compromise of his fundamental political prin-
ciples, since it was possible for him to argue that, in contrast with the
situation prevailing in the revolutionary decade, the spirit of true repub-
licanism was not now with the French, who had long since been cor-
rupted by the cold, conquering, systematising influence of Napoleon,
but with the Spanish patriots and their English allies, who better under-
stood the inextricable relationship between political principles like
liberty and public virtue and the autochthonous spirit of a particular
nation or locality. Hence when in the Convention of Cintra he suggested
that the Spanish rebels would do better to cultivate their own native
spirit of liberty rather than dabble with the political philosophy of the
French Revolution, he did so primarily because he considered that in
order to cultivate true public virtue it was necessary to look to one’s local
tradition, a principle which he might have drawn as easily from
Rousseau as from Edmund Burke. At the same time, however, his
rhetoric did suggest that he was increasingly coming to regard the
‘native’ productions of the French republican tradition as intrinsically
problematic: ‘The Spaniards are a people with imagination’, he wrote,
‘and the paradoxical reveries of Rousseau and the flippancies of
Voltaire, are plants which will not naturalise in the country of Calderón
and Cervantes’.36 But for all that the Convention of Cintra might be seen to
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
mark a significant stage in the slow decline of Wordsworth’s youthful
republicanism into Burkean conservatism, from an essentially secular
and egalitarian ideal to a belief in Anglicanism and feudalism, it is not
necessary to infer that The Prelude was part of the same stage in the
process. For in the years during which he was engaged upon the poem,
Wordsworth stood in a far more problematic relation to the growing
counter-revolutionary consensus. He had not entirely rejected the
revolutionary paradigm; he was still concerned to reclaim what he could
from the wreckage of the s, seeking to translate the underlying prin-
ciples of revolutionary ‘primitivism’ into an English Lakeland idiom,
and also to transfuse some of its visionary energy, its utopian ideal.
In embarking upon this project of political salvage work, Wordsworth
must have been aware of the extent to which, above and beyond all other
genres, autobiography provided one of the best means of retrieving
what was valuable in the past. And it is difficult not to believe that
Rousseau would have been a powerful example in this respect, for one
of the leading characteristics of his confessional discourse had been its
ongoing dynamic of confession and self-justification, by which means
the author had been able to reject former errors, and then subsequently
redeem them, in a way that seemed both natural and persuasive, and not
merely a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. So that when Wordsworth began to
undertake a reassessment of his own past, this confessional dynamic
must have been highly appealing, not least because it would allow him
to have things both ways, simultaneously to register his absolute rejec-
tion of French Jacobinism, while continuing to put its legacy of ‘reno-
vating virtue’ in the service of his ‘localist’ ideal.


In book  of The Prelude of  Wordsworth describes his residence in
Paris during one of the most dramatic periods of the French Revolution.
Arriving in the capital in October , just a few weeks after the
insurrection of  August, the September Massacres and the institution
of the First Republic, he is greeted by the sound of news hawkers
announcing the accusation of Maximilien Robespierre by Jean-Baptiste
Louvet. Immediately the poet goes on to describe the scene in the
National Convention ‘when Robespierre not ignorant for what mark /
Some words of indirect reproof had been / Intended, rose in hardihood,
and dared / The man who had an ill surmise of him / To bring his
charge in openness’. He describes Louvet’s subsequent attack, and the
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
lack of support he gained from his ‘irresolute friends’, before com-
menting that it was the failure of those ‘whose aim / Seemed best’ which
ultimately led to the débâcle of the Terror. But whose aim seemed best?
It is likely, as most commentators have suggested, that Wordsworth is
referring to the more moderate Girondins rather than the notoriously
extreme Jacobins, but he is by no means explicit about his political tra-
jectory. The potent vagueness of his confessional manner makes it
difficult to situate him within the republican conflict. Ostensibly, the
autobiographical voice of  defines itself in absolute opposition to
the Terror. But even the poet’s retrospective Girondism is haunted by the
memory of his former allegiance to the Mountain:
Well might my wishes be intense, my thoughts
Strong and perturb’d, not doubting at that time,
Creed which ten shameful years have not annull’d,
But that the virtue of one paramount mind
Would have abash’d those impious crests, have quell’d
Outrage and bloody power, and in despite
Of what the People were through ignorance
And immaturity, and, in the teeth
Of desperate opposition from without,
Have clear’d a passage for just government,
And left a solid birth-right to the State,
Redeem’d according to example given
By ancient Lawgivers. (, –)

As James Heffernan has pointed out, Wordsworth’s probable admira-


tion for the political morality of ‘Girondin’ moderates such as Louvet’s
‘irresolute friends’ and his political mentor Michel Beaupuy was always
accompanied by a sense of their ineffectuality: ‘Even as he denounces
“bloody power”, Heffernan writes, ‘he is asking for radically effective
“virtue”, for someone like Robespierre, who spoke as the apostle of
virtue, and declared that terror was nothing but prompt, severe,
inflexible justice.’37 As is well known, the party of the Mountain gained
its name from the high wall of the left-wing of the National Convention
where the radicals chose to sit. Robespierre himself had drawn on
Rousseau’s celebration of Alpine republicanism in his description of this
Mountain, depicting it as the ‘height of patriotism’ and defining a
Montagnard or Mountaineer as ‘nothing other than a pure, reasonable
and sublime patriot’.38 Thus in hankering for the virtue of ‘one para-
mount mind’ to abash ‘those impious crests’ Wordsworth’s anti-
Robespierrist tirade rehearses the very language of Alpine virtue coined
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
by Rousseau himself. The mature poet aligns himself with Louvet while
simultaneously endorsing the cult of the ‘paramount’ legislator that
Louvet’s ‘Denunciation’ of  had explicitly sought to expose. And in
recollecting and resurrecting the desire for the State to be ‘redeem’d
according to example given / By ancient Lawgivers’ the poet betrays the
neo-Spartan roots of his former Jacobinism. It is as if, like Southey in his
letter to Coleridge of , he is calling for a ‘Lycurgus after Robespierre’
to carry on the work of Revolution, where the figure of the
‘Incorruptible’ comes to represent a political ‘double’, at one and the
same time both the type and the anti-type of the ideal ‘public man’.
It is instructive, in this respect, to compare this section of book  with
some of the prose histories of the republican period which were pub-
lished at this time. As we have seen, Adolphus had refused to make any
distinction between the martyred Girondins and their Jacobin per-
secutors, arguing that ‘there is hardly an objection made by Brissot to
the intrigues, the views and the crimes of the opposing party but applies
with equal or greater force to his own’.39 He maintained that the opposi-
tion between the Brissotins and the Robespierrists had been merely cir-
cumstantial, that it had been produced by their competition for political
power, and not by any fundamental moral or political difference
between them. For him, they were all, in principle, Jacobin terrorists:
their shared rhetoric pointed to their shared beliefs. ‘Danton . . . appears
to have justly appreciated Brissot in this respect, when he declared that
“a fraternity with either faction was the brotherhood of Cain, and that
Brissot, like Robespierre, would have condemned him to the guillotine”’
(, ). And as we have seen, it was in a vain attempt to undermine this
growing orthodoxy that English radicals such as Helen Maria Williams
sought to distinguish the virtuous republicanism of Brissot and the
Girondins from the tyrannical behaviour of Robespierre and his
supporters in the Mountain.40
History will judge between Brissot and Robespierre . . . [It] will not confound
these sanguinary and ambitious men who passed along the revolutionary
horizon like baneful meteors, spreading destruction in their course, with those
whose talents formed a radiant constellation in the zone of freedom and
diffused benignant beams on the hemisphere till extinguished by storms and
darkness.
One of the earliest strategies adopted by apologists of the French
Revolution had been to try and ‘naturalise’ it as an event or series of
events by describing its progress using metaphors from geology and
astronomy.41 Williams carries on this tradition by making nature and
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
history transparent to one another. In her version of events the Jacobins
and the Girondins were only apparently similar. Time would show that
the blaze created by the former was terrifying but temporary, while the
‘radiant constellation’ of the latter would be both inspiring and lasting.
It is significant, therefore, that given Wordsworth’s familiarity with
Williams’s text, his retrospective Girondism should have been so
comparatively unconvincing. Moreover, it is also rather interesting that,
when considered alongside the natural imagery from the Memoirs,
Wordsworth’s reference to the Mountain’s ‘impious crests’ being
abashed by ‘the virtue of one paramount mind’ should be so curiously
self-defeating, registering an absolute opposition to the actual policies of
the Mountain, while at the same time fully endorsing its political aes-
thetic.
In  it was still possible for moderate republicans like Williams to
put their trust in History, to argue that as soon as the Revolution had
been completed, the bewildering flux of the Terror would become sub-
sumed into a progressive linear narrative.42 By , however, at the time
when Wordsworth was composing The Prelude, Europe was embroiled in
the second phase of the Napoleonic conflict and the memories of the
republican period of the French Revolution were rapidly receding. In
this climate, it was not easy for him to share Williams’s blithe confidence
in the future, and nor was it especially useful to toe her Girondist line.
So rather than rehearsing the Themidorean ‘plot’ she had adopted, he
gave an entirely different version of recent history, one much more
closely linked with the conservative historiography of the period, in
which the revolution was seen as a series of repetitions and returns, a
succession of legislative hopes and executive disappointments, from the
journées of  to Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor in :
When we see the dog returning to his vomit, when the sun
That rose in slendour, was alive, and moved
In exultation among living clouds
Hath put his function and his glory off,
And, turned into a gewgaw, a machine,
Sets like an opera phantom. (, –).
But as we shall see, what is curious and distinctive about The Prelude is
that far from putting this narrative technique to a reactionary end, as
Burke and Chateaubriand had done, Wordsworth was to give it a decid-
edly radical spin, showing how in confessional autobiography, unlike
history or drama, there was not merely an agony in repetition, but also
‘the return of liberty and choice’.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
In book  of The Prelude which describes the first phase of
Wordsworth’s residence in France, the poet relates how in passing ‘into
a theatre of which the stage / Was busy with an action far advanced’ he
became eager to give a ‘form and a body’ to the narrative into which he
had entered, to accord the Revolution the generic status of comedy,
tragedy or romance. Unable to affix it to a literary category, he is forced
to veer from one extreme to the other, firstly by suggesting that the
Revolution was so unprecedented that it broke all of the rules of narra-
tive, that it was a ‘mockery of history, the past and that to come!’, then
by arguing that it seemed ‘like nothing out of nature’s certain course’
and absolutely concordant with the general scheme of things. As the
narrative moves on to the most violent and unpredictable phase of the
Jacobin period, the Revolution is increasingly described in terms of a
series of uncanny reversals. Describing the period immediately after
England had declared war on France in February , Wordsworth
writes of the sense of inner conflict created by his continued support for
the First Republic. This phase was ‘not as hitherto, / A swallowing of
lesser things in great; / But change of them into their opposites,’ a time
in which differentiations of concept and character became radically
unstable, in which liberty came to resemble tyranny and in which virtue
was equated with terror, ‘and thus a way was open’d’, as Wordsworth
later puts it, ‘for mistakes / And false conclusions of the intellect, / As
gross in their degree and in their kind/Far, far more dangerous’ (,
–). And with the onset of the revolutionary Terror he describes how
he began to experience the revolution as a species of internal conflict:
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of these atrocities (I speak bare truth,
As if to thee alone in private talk)
I scarcely had one night of quiet sleep
Such ghastly visions had I of despair
And tyranny, and implements of death,
And long orations which in dreams I pleaded
Before unjust Tribunals, with a voice
Labouring, a brain confounded, and a sense,
Of treachery and desertion in the place
The holiest that I knew of, my own soul. (, –)
The  version of this passage has the poet full of a sense ‘Death-
like, of treacherous desertion, felt, / In the last place of refuge, my own
soul’, which suggests that others have been doing the deserting.43 The
 text, however, is much more willing to explore the complex cross-
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
currents of revolutionary culpability, for when the poet is hauled before
the tribunal it is with a sense ‘of treachery and desertion’ that is much
more difficult to locate, as if somewhere deep inside he felt himself to
have failed the cause of liberty. Shortly afterwards, however, there is a
violent reaction, in which he rises above these feelings of victimisation
and culpability, rechannelling his guilt into a pursuit of the guilty, and,
just like Rivers before him, rediscovering in repetition a resurgence of
agency:
But as the ancient Prophets were inflamed
Nor wanted consolations of their own
And majesty of mind, when they denounced
On Towns and Cities, wallowing in the abyss
Of their offences, punishment to come;
Or saw, like other men, with bodily eyes,
Before them in some desolated place
The consummation of the wrath of Heaven,
So did some portion of that spirit fall
On me, to uphold me through those evil times,
And in their rage and dog-day heat I found
Something to glory in, as just and fit,
And in the order of sublimest laws;
And even if that were not, amid the awe
Of unintelligible chastisement,
I felt a kind of sympathy with power,
Motions rais’d up within me, nevertheless
Which had relationship to highest things.
(, –)
Such is the counter-revolutionary zeal of this section, its deep invest-
ment in the self-destructive recoil of the Terror, that it comes danger-
ously close to the very psychology of Terrorism itself. And Wordsworth
must have noticed this when he came to revise the passage in his later
years, or he would not have thought it necessary to ‘sanctify’ its senti-
ments in the way that he did. For example, whereas in the 
version, the ancient Prophets the poet refers to are curiously both
inside and outside the revolutionary abyss, passing lofty judgment upon
offences to which they are themselves syntactically linked, in the 
version these Prophets are far more morally detached from the revolu-
tionary action, and the poet himself is animated with feelings of
‘devout humility’ and the ‘acquiescences of faith’ as well as ‘daring
sympathies with power’. Ultimately, then, the poet sympathises much
more wholeheartedly with the ‘wrath of heaven’ in the  version,
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
while continuing to identify with the objects of its wrath. And such is
the duplicity of the language in this earlier rendering, its inescapably
dual aspect, that it succeeds in being at once both Burkean and
Robespierrist, a piece at once for and against the Terror, as if even in
 Wordsworth still found it impossible to rehearse a set of unequiv-
ocally counter-revolutionary sentiments without unconsciously incu-
bating within them a Jacobin ‘ghost’.
In the concluding section of the Memoirs of the Reign of Robespierre
Williams gave an account of the trial of the former head prosecutor of
the Revolutionary Tribunal, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, the man who
had administered the infamous Prairial laws:
On May st  I was at the revolutionary tribunal when the charges against
Fouquier-Tinville and his accomplices were re-read after all the witnesses had
been heard. On entering the hall I was seized with a feeling of profound horror.
So many persons who had been dear to me had met their doom there, and now
the benches where they had sat were occupied by their murderers. There was
scarcely any need for the jury to deliberate. It only remained to apply the law
and pronounce the judgement. And as though all the circumstances of the trial
had been arranged to show the punishment of heaven, the very words used
were those with which the condemned had been wont to judge the innocent:
the accusation being one of conspiracy against the safety of the French
Republic, and the penalty being death.44
This scene might be seen to form an objective, historical counterpart
to Wordsworth’s nightmarish tableau on his ‘sympathy with power’. It
describes one of those uncanny moments when the providential history
of the Revolution seemed to have come full circle, with the head prose-
cutor of the Jacobin regime standing in the dock hearing his own
rhetoric used against him. The difference is, of course, that while
Williams keeps an ironic detachment from the proceedings,
Wordsworth, like Shakespeare’s Lear directing the storm, actively
identifies with the principle of sublime justice, imagining it as a function
of his will, while continuing to feel his continuing links with the base
objects of its vengeance.
In one sense, the rest of book  can be seen to continue this dynamic
of repudiation-as-repetition, since the poet goes on to describe the
rejuvenation of his revolutionary enthusiasm after the death of
Robespierre, before subsequently confessing the extent to which it repre-
sented nothing but a repetition, in internal form, of the characteristic
forms and practices of the Terror, ‘tempting region that’ he remarks,
referring to the field of philosophical speculation, ‘for Zeal to enter and
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
refresh herself, / Where passions had the privilege to work, / And never
hear the sound of their own names’ (, –). Then he describes
throwing himself into ‘the philosophy that promised to abstract the
hopes of man / Out of his feelings’, which many critics have identified
as the philosophical anarchism of William Godwin, seeking to demon-
strate what happens when moral speculation is colonised by a species of
‘false imagination, placed beyond / The limits of experience and of
truth’ (, –).
I took the knife in hand
And stopping not at parts less sensitive,
Endeavour’d with my best of skill to probe
The living body of society
Even to the heart: I push’d without remorse
My speculations forward; yea, set foot
On Nature’s holiest places. (, –)

In a radical internalisation of the executive practice of the Terror, the


poet’s mind has become transformed into a kind of court-room for the
pursuit of philosophical truth. Soon time-honoured sentiments and
prejudices are being brought to the bar, with the mind being forced to
confess ‘her titles and her honours’ as if she were an aristocratic suspect
at Fouquier-Tinville’s revolutionary tribunal:
Thus I fared,
Dragging all passions, notions, shapes of faith
Like culprits to the bar, suspiciously
Calling the mind to establish in plain day
Her titles and her honours, now believing,
Now disbelieving; endlessly perplexed
With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
Of moral obligation, what the rule
And what the sanction, till, demanding proof,
And seeking it in everything, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair. (, –)
Quite often, in the past, this section of the poem has often been con-
sidered an attack on revolutionary ‘rationalism’. But as we saw in the first
four chapters, the philosophical and political theorists of the ‘rational-
ist’ school did not perplex themselves with ‘impulse, motive, right and
wrong’. Theorists such as Bentham and Condorcet preferred to see
moral and legal problems in utilitarian terms; they did not try to fathom
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
intentions, but to calculate consequences. It makes more sense, then, I
would argue, to suggest that this section of book , like The Borderers,
represents not so much an attack on rationalism as an attempt ‘to show
the dangerous use which may be made of reason when a man has com-
mitted a great crime’, for as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein it is the use of
reason rather than reason itself which is the main focus of the text, or to
put it another way, its concern is to exhibit the danger of employing ‘pro-
gressive’ methods to pursue a ‘primitive’ ideal, as the poet attempts to
pursue a highly internal notion of truth while using an analytic method
that is the philosophical equivalent of the guillotine. In this way books
 and  of The Prelude can be seen to represent a full-scale confession of
revolutionary culpability, describing how the dynamic reversals of
revolutionary history became reflexes of the mind, and how, by a
complex process of repudiation and repetition, the youthful self of the
narrator found himself putting on the mantle of Robespierre and
rehearsing his public errors in the private tribunal of his mind. But they
are also confessional in another sense, for while it is undoubtedly true
that the autobiographical voice of  defines itself in explicit opposi-
tion to the Jacobin Terror, it does also continue to betray a continuing
investment in Jacobin habits of mind, most notably its politics of the will
and of ‘paramount virtue’, as if retaining a residual belief in ‘primitivist’
republicanism, in spite of the ravages of history.
Of central importance here, both in relation to book  and to The
Prelude as a whole, is the revolutionary conduct of the narrative itself.
Even in its early books, The Prelude is full of temporal digressions and
asides, sudden prospects of the future and unexpected returns to the
past. In book , however, this characteristic takes on a new aspect, as we
are invited to recognise the revolutionary potential of a sudden resurrec-
tion of past ideals. Most notably, this is true of the passage beginning ‘O
pleasant exercise of hope and joy’, which interrupts an account of the
Thermidorean period with the famous invocation: ‘Bliss was it in that
dawn to be alive!’ (, –). A number of critics have spent a long
time puzzling over this passage; for some it is an essentially ironic per-
formance, detailing the naive idealism of  in the light of the deep
disappointment of ; for others, however, it is a genuine
commemoration of the millenarian atmosphere of the early s. To
my mind at least, it is not necessary to choose between these two inter-
pretations: the passage does hint that there was something flimsy and
fantastical about the revolutionary enthusiasm of the early s, that it
was ‘romantic’ in the fullest sense, but it does also suggest that the auto-
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
biographical voice of  is still imbued with considerable retrospective
fondness for that former vision: ‘Why should I not confess,’ Wordsworth
writes, ‘that earth was then / To what an inheritance new-fallen / Seems
when the the first time visited, to one / Who thither comes to find in it
his home? (, –). In fact, what is really striking about the passage is
that it stages such a striking interruption of the poetic narrative, burst-
ing into the chronological continuum with all the force of a revolution-
ary moment. And this instantly serves to disturb that sense of the
Revolution as a historical failure, an endless cycle of violent repetition,
and reintroduces it into the body of the text as a still-nourishing ‘beau
idéal’; a recollected state of being, a ‘spot of time’.
To the French revolutionary mind, almost the only way of thinking
about the republican tradition was in terms of the discontinuous history
of a few small ‘spots of time’ – short-lived nations and city states like
Sparta, Rome, Florence, Geneva – isolated from one another by
innumerable generations. As Robespierre himself had confessed, in his
speech on the Cult of the Supreme Being of  May : ‘Posterity
honours the virtue of Brutus, but it only permits to exist in ancient
history. The centuries and the earth have hardly reposed for a moment,
and only on a few points of the globe. Sparta shines like a star in the
immense darkness’.45 And in a certain sense, the passage quoted above
from The Prelude could be seen as a poetic version of just such another
spot of time – the utopian moment of , snatched briefly from the
oblivion of the past. Ultimately, it could be argued, the overriding
purpose of book  is to identify the emptily theatrical nature of what De
Quincey called ‘the gorgeous festival era of the French Revolution’, the
extent to which the sun of French liberty ultimately proved to be nothing
but ‘a gewgaw, a machine [. . .] an opera phantom’, and also perhaps to
identify the misguided ambition of the revolutionary project, whose end
it was to regenerate ‘not favour’d spots alone’ (as in the republican
history of the past), ‘but the whole earth’. But for all that, however, the
repudiation of French republican forms by Wordsworth was far from
total. Indeed the nature and shape of the revolutionary ‘romance’ was
to remain an important element in his work, for as I hope to show, even
in the later books of The Prelude, which represent the poet returning to
England to embrace its native landscape and traditions, there is evidence
to suggest the enduring influence of the republican tradition upon his
conceptualisation of English liberty, with the festival moments of the
Revolution continuing to insinuate themselves into his recollections of
private virtue.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism


Wordsworth’s most authoritative account of the recovery of the past as
an inspiration to the future occurs in the famous ‘spots of time’ passage
from book  of The Prelude. ‘There are in our existence spots of time’,
the poet writes, ‘Which with distinct preeminence retain / A renovating
virtue’
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
Among those passages of life in which
We have had deepest feeling that the mind
Is lord and master, and the outward sense
Is but the obedient servant of her will. (, –)
Through his private memories, the poet says, it was possible for him
to recover the strength and goodness, the ‘vivifying virtue’ that he lost
during the Jacobin period. In Wordsworth’s Second Nature James Chandler
has argued that ‘the discipline represented by the spots [of time] is ulti-
mately a psychological manifestation of a national character and a
native tradition’.46 For him the poem is fundamentally Burkean in
nature, a critique of the rationalist idealism of the French Revolution
and a defence of English custom and prejudice. And he sees the ‘spots’
very much in terms of a renewed sense of the relationship between
English landscape and English liberty. But what Chandler’s account
tends to neglect is the fact that Wordsworth may have been prompted to
reject the ‘rationalistic’ tendency of French Enlightenment thought
without necessarily rejecting the principles of Rousseauvian republi-
canism. For as we saw in chapter one, works such as the Contrat Social and
the Lettre à d’Alembert may have been somewhat systematic in their form,
but they also possessed a strong emphasis upon custom and tradition. So
much so, indeed, that on the question of ‘locality’ Rousseau shared a lot
of common ground with Burke, while putting that ground to entirely
different ends.47 It is not a foregone conclusion, therefore, that we should
see the celebration of native tradition in Wordsworth as automatically
Burkean in nature. And whereas in relation to The Excursion there is a
compelling argument to suggest that Wordsworth’s poetic sensibility has
taken on an identifiably Burkean cast, The Prelude is far more ambivalent.
For contrary to Chandler’s thesis, many of the ‘spots of time’ in
Wordsworth’s Prelude are not merely affirmations of local spirit and
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
tradition, but also memories of the first stirrings of preeminent ‘moun-
tain’ virtue. And their very status as ‘spots’ serves to extract them from
their surrounding context, as if they were private versions of the great
republican moments of the past, ‘small islands in the midst of stormy
waves’ (, ), rather than true emblems of traditionary process like the
‘spoken epitaphs’ in The Excursion. And it is for this very reason that the
‘renovating’ power they supply is often highly ambiguous in nature, at
once deeply rooted in a particular context, and yet potentially extensive
in its ambition, a means of private ‘restoration’ which still retains the
capacity to fuel a public ‘regeneration’.
In the childhood reminiscence from book  that is used to exemplify
the theory of the ‘spots’, Wordsworth describes coming upon a hollow
in the midst of a ‘rough and stony Moor’ near his home, where a long
time ago ‘a Murderer had been hung in iron chains’:
The Gibbet mast was moulder’d down, the bones
And iron case were gone; but on the turf,
Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought
Some unknown hand had carved the Murderer’s name.
(, –)

When he reascended the bare Common Wordsworth saw a lone Girl


by ‘a naked Pool’ carrying a Pitcher in the ‘blowing wind’, an image
whose ‘visionary dreariness’ impressed itself deeply upon his mind. He
continues by recalling the happy occasion when he returned to that spot
with his wife Mary and his sister Dorothy, and how it became suffused
with ‘the spirit of pleasure and youth’s golden gleam’, concluding that
he cannot fail to have benefited from the divine radiance of these
remembrances, ‘and from the power / They left behind’ (, –).
According to Thomas Weiskel such ‘gestures of self-inquisition’ in The
Prelude ‘become the mere feinting of a mind learning how knowledge is
opposed to efficacious power’.48 In this interpretation, Wordsworth
learns that he can recover a sense of freedom and choice from the essen-
tially traumatic and terrifying experiences of the past by transforming
them from historical events into natural phenomena, by ‘denying’ some
of the more painful details of a tale or history in order that they can be
reconfigured as a succession of sounds or images. As he said of Louvet’s
confrontation with Robespierre in the National Convention, ‘these are
things / Of which I speak, only as they were storm / Or sunshine to my
individual mind, / No further’ (, –). Unlike Rousseau, Wordsworth
does not believe that he can wholly recollect the past, or that it is espe-
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
cially helpful to do so. He is more concerned to retrieve the how rather
than the what of history, to recover the structure but not the content of
former desire. But this is not necessarily a reactionary tactic. For it could
also be seen as the means by which the poet was actively seeking to soften
and beautify the ‘harsh sublimity’ contained in the catastrophic
moments of past history in order to recapture some of their ‘renovating
virtue’.
In her important book on the French Revolutionary festivals, Mona
Ozouf has described how the Jacobins sought to use nature as a means
of verifying the narrative fact of revolution. Indeed the calendar of
revolutionary festivals can be seen as nothing less than a deliberate
attempt to ‘naturalise’ History, to transform it into Time, a natural and
harmonious cycle which would subsume and tranquillise all ‘historical’
violence.49 But for those who came after the Revolution, the relationship
between nature and history was bound to be more fraught. As Alan Liu
writes, ‘whereas the Revolutionary fêtes declared an ideology premised
upon nature’s transparency to history, Wordsworth’s fêtes will argue an
ideology requiring nature to be opaque to history’.
After the shock of the high Terror and of the declaration of war between
England and France, nature – the verification of Imagination intervening
between history and ideology – became a blind or screen: a fact for its own
sake.50

Thus according to Liu’s thesis Nature comes to mask History in


Wordsworth’s Prelude and Time becomes human to the extent that it is
articulated through a denied narrative mode. ‘When revolutionary
history vanishes,’ Liu continues, ‘what remains is lyric inscription whose
zero degree story, like the bare name, span of dates, or short verse of an
epitaph – points away from the buried narrative to an imagined, eternal
history.’ This is as much as to say that like the Pastor in The Excursion the
poet in The Prelude is content to let the ‘green herbs [. . .] softly creep’
over the head-stone of history, in order that he will be reminded ‘less
imperiously’ of the past.51 According to this view of things,
Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic operates like the ideal grave in his
Essay on Epitaphs of – as ‘a tranquillising object’ from which
‘resignation in course of time springs up [. . .] as naturally as the wild
flowers besprinkling the turf with which it may be covered, or gathering
round the monument by which it is defended’.52 But what Liu neglects
is that in The Prelude the masking of history does not constitute a resigna-
tion of the Jacobin ideal, but its tactical transferral. It is the means by
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
which the poet resituates the paradigm of liberty in an identifiably
English context.
There is one passage in the poem in which this process is to some
degree laid bare, the moment when Wordsworth describes the deep
exultation he felt when first hearing of the death of Robespierre. And it
is in a brief discussion of this section (, –) that I will seek to con-
solidate my argument, precisely because it seems so characteristic of the
way that Wordsworth uses the ‘spots’ in The Prelude as a whole. The
passage is preceded by a section in which the poet describes how, even
during the ‘disastrous period’ of the Terror, he still found ‘bright spots’
of hope and joy. He tells how he could not help remembering ‘the glad
time’ when he had been travelling through France for the first time with
Robert Jones, recollecting the day ‘when through an arch that spann’d
the street, / A rainbow made of garish ornaments, / Triumphal pomp
for Liberty confirmed, / We walked, a pair of weary Travellers, / Along
the town of Arras, place from which / Issued that Robespierre, who
afterwards / Wielded the sceptre of the atheist crew’. And soon mem-
ories of the festival atmosphere of  inevitably lead the poet to medi-
tate on the subsequent fate of Arras during the the Terror ‘groaning
under the vengeance of her cruel Son’, and then to reflect on how the
‘blameless spectacle’ afforded by his first glimpse of the town returned
to mock him ‘under such a strange reverse’.
Immediately after this comes Wordsworth’s description of the
moment when he first heard of Robespierre’s death, one of the happi-
est days of his life, as he describes it, and one which deserves, he says, ‘a
separate chronicle’. Setting the scene, he describes how he was walking
along the ‘smooth and level sands of Leven’, gazing at the hills and
mountains of his birthplace in the distance, at the moment when he
heard the news. Having already been told that this was the day on which
Robespierre was finally ‘levell’d with the dust’, the reader is immediately
encouraged to read the landscape of Leven as an anticipation of the
smooth and level prospect that the death of the Incorruptible is about to
open up. With this monstrous obstacle removed, the passage seems to
suggest, the poet will finally be free to look toward the distant vision of
hope and joy imaged in the play of light above the mountains of his
birthplace, a ‘fulgent spectacle’ that is fundamentally steadfast and
secure in nature, strongly contrasting with the artificial and flimsy spec-
tacle that he had witnessed at Arras, and far more lasting than Helen
Maria Williams’ radiant constellation of the Gironde. Then in a further
digression, Wordsworth describes how he looked at this prospect with a
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
fancy ‘more alive’ for having just visited the grave of his old schoolmas-
ter, the man who had encouraged him in his earliest essays in poetry,
deeming him ‘not devoid of promise’. Throughout this passage, the poet
repeatedly emphasises the gentleness and peace of the setting, the
smooth and level nature of Leven Sands, with the tide having retreated
to a ‘safe distance’ far from the shore. The ruins of an ancient ‘Romish’
chapel stands in the sea nearby, and ‘not far from this still Ruin all the
plain / Was spotted with a variegated crowd / Of coaches, Wains, and
Travellers, horse and foot, Wading, beneath the conduct of their Guide /
In loose procession through the shallow Stream / Of inland water’.
So far, this section reads like a microcosm of the broad narrative of
The Prelude as a whole, in which the French Revolution is depicted as a
distracting ideal which temporarily prevents the poet from discovering
what turns out to be his true inheritance, the philosophic and poetic pat-
rimony contained in the sites and scenes of his own childhood. However,
as the poet learns of Robespierre’s death, the relationship between
external nature and internal feeling become much more complicated, as
the stresses and storms of internal feeling threaten to spill over into the
landscape:
Great was my glee of spirit, great my joy
In vengeance, and eternal justice, thus
Made manifest. ‘Come now ye golden times’,
Said I, forth-breathing on these open Sands
A Hymn of triumph, ‘as the morning comes
Out of the bosom of the night, come Ye:
Thus far our trust is verified: behold!
They who with clumsy desperation brought
Rivers of blood, and preached that nothing else
Could cleanse the Augean stable, by the might
Of their own helper have been swept away;
Their madness is declared and visible,
Elsewhere will safety now be sought, and Earth
March firmly towards righteousness and peace.’
Then schemes I framed more calmly, when and how
The madding Factions might be tranquillised,
And, though through hardships manifold and long,
The mighty renovation would proceed:
Thus, interrupted by uneasy bursts
Of exultation, I pursued my way
Along that very shore which I had skimmed
In former times, when, spurring from the Vale
Of Nightshade, and St Mary’s mouldering fane,
Wordsworth and the politics of the Mountain 
And the Stone Abbot, after circuit made
in wantonness of heart, a joyous crew
Of School-boys, hastening to their distant home,
Along the margin of the moonlight sea,
We beat with thundering hoofs the level sand.
(, –)
Ostensibly, Wordsworth’s ‘Hymn of Triumph’ represents a
straightforward critique of the politics of the Terror. Surreptitiously,
however, it seems to draw energy and virtue from the object of its scorn.
And significantly, the reference to the spirit of vengeance was dropped
in the  version of the poem, as if Wordsworth was later moved to
try and distance himself from an emotion which had increasingly come
to be identified, by a whole series of writers on the Revolution from John
Thelwall to William Hazlitt, as Robespierre’s fatal flaw.53 Nevertheless,
in both versions of this passage, the poet’s faith in the Revolution dies
with the dying, only to be born with the dead. Functioning as a kind of
scapegoat, as in the Thermidorean representations of the previous
decade, Robespierre’s demise releases not only new hope, but also
Jacobin desire, as Wordsworth expresses a newfound zeal for renovation
couched in the form of a scarcely veiled fantasy of political ambition.
Suddenly he imagines himself as the new ‘public man’ as he dances on
the grave of the old, ‘a Lycurgus after Robespierre’ capable of tranquil-
lising the ‘madding Factions’ and helping the ‘mighty renovation’ to
proceed. He experiences an ‘exultation’ that immediately links him to
the formerly ‘exultant’ town of Arras, mentioned not long before, and
which expresses itself in ‘uneasy bursts’ as if it were an incoming tide, or
gathering wind, natural forces that would inevitably serve to threaten the
peace and tranquillity of Leven.
Evidently, the latter part of the passage strives to offset the ‘uneasy’
effect of this burst of exultation by linking it with the seemingly inno-
cent joy the poet felt as a young boy horse-riding with his fellows along
the margins of the self same spot of Leven Sands. Significantly, however,
this ‘spot of time’ serves to remind us of an earlier section of the poem,
in which those schoolboy games were described in more detail, with the
last line of this passage from book  exactly echoing line  of book .
And in that earlier description, there was a clear suggestion that the
‘wantonness of heart’ exhibited by the boys represents a kind of disrup-
tion of the tranquil spirit of Furness Abbey and its environs, a desecra-
tion of which the young Wordsworth was himself partly aware. Thus
while the passage in book  ostensibly seeks to establish a contrast
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
between the poet’s heartfelt and harmonious attachment to the place of
his birth, and the vengeful attitude to Arras that was adopted by
Robespierre, it also cannot help confessing the extent to which the
‘primitive’ zeal of Jacobinism was actually present in embyro in the poet’s
own boyhood, as the smooth and level sands of Leven are disturbed and
kicked about by his wanton, joyous spirit.
Only a month before his death Robespierre had presided over the cel-
ebrated Festival of the Supreme Being, in which a dazzling display of
light and colour had been arranged to illuminate an artificial mountain
specially constructed on the Champ de Mars, and hymns had been sung
to the future regeneration of the French Republic. Memories of this
symbolic invocation to mountain virtue – which was at once a celebra-
tion of Rousseauvian Alpine virtue and the virtue of the Montagnard
faction – cannot help but impinge upon the play of light Wordsworth
describes hovering over the hills of his birthplace on the day of his death.
And this is not merely a question of Wordsworth replacing the ‘bright
spot’ of French liberty at Arras, a short-lived and fragile prospect, ‘a
small island in the midst of stormy waves’ with the more ‘fulgent spec-
tacle’ he sees over Hawkshead. It is also that the scene on Leven Sands
is so clearly imagined as the realisation of its previous revolutionary
model. Unlike Helen Maria Williams’s ‘radiant constellation’ of the
Gironde, it improves on the spectacle of the Cult of the Supreme Being
by rendering it real. A piece of corrupt urban theatre, a kind of political
Bartholomew Fair, has been given a more thoroughly primitive, a more
completely republican setting, surrounded by the permanent forms of
nature. The false and bloody sublime of the Montagnards, which was,
as it were, a kind of desperate gesturing towards an ethos of neo-Spartan
virtue, has been replaced by the true and healthful sublime of the
Lakeland mountains, which represents its softer and yet more lasting
embodiment. In this way the poem returns the festival ideal of the
French Revolution to its local setting. But as we have seen, such is
the ‘renovating virtue’ of this landscape that it always carries within it
the possibility of conquest and expansion, of generating ‘uneasy bursts’
of universal ambition that threaten to repeat the regenerative idealism
of the Terror. Hence Wordsworth’s desire to displace this idealism into
the past, to circumscribe and contain his revolutionary zeal by relocat-
ing it in the ‘spots of time’ of his own childhood, past moments which
can be seen to provide a ‘fructifying virtue’ precisely because of the fact
that, like the ancient ‘spots’ of Rome and Sparta, they stand at ‘a safe
distance’ from the present, and can never return. And by this means the
. ‘The Triumph of the Republic’ (), anonymous colour engraving. At the centre
of the image is a huge mountain, with two tables inscribed ‘Rights of Man’ and ‘Acte
Constitutionnel’ placed at the top. From these tables forks of lightning are being
emitted, which have succeeded in casting down a group of despots into the lake below
(a Medusa-like figure, and a priest can just be seen struggling in the waters of the
lake), and also in setting fire to a city in the background. As at the Festival of the
Supreme Being, a liberty tree is placed nearby the mountain, around which a group of
happy sans-culottes and their children are dancing.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
dangerous dynamic of repudiation-as-repetition that haunts the revolu-
tionary books of The Prelude is replaced by the more positive one of rep-
etition-as-redemption, in which the sublime experiences of childhood
simultaneously rehearse and replace the Jacobin will to power, subjecting
it to an endless deferral, transforming it into ‘something evermore about
to be’.
  

‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the


resistance to reform

When Rousseau stood behind the chair of the master of the château
of –, and smiled to hear the company dispute about the meaning
of the motto of the arms of the family, which he alone knew, and
stumbled as he handed the glass of wine to his young mistress, and
fancied she coloured at being waited upon by so learned a young
footman – then was first kindled that spark which can never be
quenched, then was formed the germ of that strong conviction of
the disparity between the badge on his shoulder and the aspirations
of his soul – the determination, in short, that external situation and
advantages are but the mask, and that the mind is the man – armed
with which, impenetrable, incorrigible, he went forth conquering
and to conquer, and overthrew the monarchy of France and the
hierarchies of the earth.1


In the sixteenth of his Conversations with Northcote () William Hazlitt
was to cite an episode from book  of the Confessions in an attempt to
exemplify how its author had ‘stamped his own character and the image
of his self-love on the public mind’. Like Robespierre before him, he
believed that Rousseau’s autobiography had exerted an immense
influence upon the French Revolution, far more significant, in its way,
than his works of educational or political theory. For in his eyes the
Confessions had succeeded in firing an entire generation with enthusiasm
for the principles of liberty and equality through its extended account of
its author’s heroic opposition to the ancien régime. Where many nine-
teenth-century commentators, especially in England, had found them-
selves concurring with Burke’s remarks upon Rousseau’s transgressive
egotism, Hazlitt was to defend it as a Promethean force which, in its very
excess, had served to counter aristocratic prejudice, and popularise the
principle of meritocracy.

 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Writing almost forty years after the storming of the Bastille during a
period of profound political reaction, Hazlitt strongly identified with
Rousseau’s incorrigibility. As a freelance journalist struggling for auton-
omy in a literary culture plagued by political censorship and editorial
control, he too wished to remain unbowed by his ‘external situation’,
continuing to profess his commitment to republican principles despite
the apparent triumph of Legitimacy.2 It was hardly surprising, therefore,
that he should have been inspired by Rousseau’s celebration of the intel-
lectual superiority of the paid lackey. But what lay behind his
determination to celebrate the Confessions at the expense of Rousseau’s
other writings? And why was he so keen to represent Jacobinism as if it
were primarily a question of personality rather than of policies or prin-
ciples? In order to explore some of these issues, this chapter will under-
take to place Hazlitt’s highly idiosyncratic conception of politics in the
context of developments in the literary market during the early nine-
teenth century, interpreting it as a self-conscious response to historical
changes in the mode of cultural production; for as I hope to show, not
only was he aware of the extent to which his literary conditions were
determined by social and economic circumstances, he actually made it
part of his subject, using it as a means of dramatising his paradoxical
and conflicted attitude to the splintering of the English Jacobin
tradition.
Anxious to prevent his position as a journalist from jeopardising his
status as a critic, many writers on Hazlitt over the past twenty years have
been keen to argue for the fundamental coherence of his philosophical,
aesthetic and political opinions, often seeking to argue that, for all its
apparently fragmented and occasional nature, there is an underlying
unity and consistency to his work. Selecting their own canon of impor-
tant essays from the extensive range of his writings, they have tended to
represent him as if he was an independent man of letters, neglecting
those elements which do not fit in with their particular model. In this
chapter, while remaining deeply indebted to the insights of critics such
as Seamus Deane and David Bromwich, I want to argue that Hazlitt’s
writing is much more self-contradictory than even they have been pre-
pared to allow, that it is riven with significant and interesting inconsis-
tencies produced by the triangular conflict between his aesthetic tenets,
his political principles and the circumstances of his literary production.3
And what is more, I want to suggest that in many ways Hazlitt was
himself aware of this element in his writing, with many of the reflective
essays he wrote in the s having been deliberately designed as sites of
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
contradiction, spaces in which the tensions and oppositions of the post-
revolutionary period are given dramatic representation.


As we saw in chapter five, like many unregenerate Jacobins, Hazlitt was
implacably opposed to the reformist programme of the Benthamite
movement, which he saw as a pale shadow of the legislative enthusiasm
of the revolutionary decade, considering that the project to regenerate
the human race had ‘dwindled down’ in the hands of the new school of
reform ‘into petty projects, speculative details and dreams of practical,
positive matter-of-fact improvement’ (, ). Foremost among his objec-
tions to the utilitarians was their conception of the human mind itself,
which they considered to be fundamentally passive in nature, ultimately
the product of its external circumstances, and therefore eminently
capable of endless readjustment and re-training. One of the radical
aspects of this circumstantial theory was that, since it saw moral ideas
as the final result of a long process of mental associationism taking place
within each individual in response to its immediate surroundings, it
placed great importance upon the role of environmental factors in the
formation of the self. Thus in an article on ‘Prisons and Prison
Discipline’, which was published in , James Mills argued that the
depravity of criminals should not be seen as the product of any intrin-
sic deficiency, but as a product of their environment, which led quite
naturally to the notion that no individual, no matter how apparently
vicious, should ever be considered entirely incapable of reform, since it
was always possible that a controlled change of environment could
bring about a change in his or her mental habits.4 And in the article on
‘Education’ which he produced for the  supplement to the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mill was to place an even greater emphasis upon
the idea that by completely regulating an individual’s environment, and
by controlling the flow of sensations and impressions that he received,
the state would be able actively to form and shape the development of
his moral character: ‘thus much is ascertained,’ he wrote, ‘that the char-
acter of the human mind consists in the sequences of its ideas: that the
object of education, therefore, is to provide for the constant production
of certain sequences, rather than others’.5 For Hazlitt, however, as for
many critics of the utilitarian movement, this approach to the educa-
tion of the human subject was profoundly pernicious, not merely
because it was based on a profound misunderstanding of the workings
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
of the mind, but also because of its fundamentally mechanical nature.
In his article on education Mill had argued that one purpose of the
utilitarian system of education would be to try and offset the damaging
effects of the modern division of labour by supplying the labourers and
mechanics of the future with a broad intellectual framework enabling
them to transcend the narrow confines of their profession. But to
Hazlitt’s mind, the prevailing tendency of the Benthamite school went
quite the other way. For him, its proposals on law, on education, on
prison discipline and on pauper management adopted a narrowly
instrumental and therefore underlyingly exploitative attitude to the
human subject. Far from resisting the fragmentation of modern society,
it actually seemed deeply committed, as a body of thought, to the
project of remodelling society in accordance with the rigid principles of
political economy, to rendering society more rational and more efficient
even at the cost of transforming every man and woman into a veritable
automaton: ‘This is their idea of a perfect commonwealth’, as Hazlitt wrote,
in an article for The Plain Speaker ‘where each member performs his part
in the machine, taking care of himself, and no more concerned about
his neighbours, than the iron and wood-work, the pegs and nails in a
spinning-jenny’ (, ).
Thus for Hazlitt it was distressing enough that the early s had
seen the Benthamites successfully hijack the political discourse of
reform, and refashion it in accordance with their own agenda. What
made matters worse was that they were increasingly seeking to direct the
principle of reform at individuals as well as institutions. Indeed, as we
have seen, it was in many ways an inevitable tendency of the utilitarian
philosophy that human beings should be regarded as just so much raw
material waiting to be ‘improved’. Hazlitt’s problem was that, although
he thought this tendency profoundly dangerous, he was forced to admit
that it was also extremely dynamic. Arising from the ashes of the revolu-
tionary project of regeneration, it had won an increasing number of
converts in the ensuing years, and with the decline of the revolutionary
ideal it soon found itself with no real rival, there having emerged no seri-
ously viable radical alternative, within middle-class politics at least, to
oppose to its philosophy of extreme individualism.
Somewhat despairingly, then, Hazlitt was often moved to counter the
claims of the circumstantial determinists by seeking to celebrate the very
stubbornness and recalcitrance of ordinary human nature, its deep
incorrigibility, which was an extremely paradoxical move for one whose
political loyalties lay with the millenarians of . Thus in the essay ‘On
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
Personal Character’ which appeared in the London Magazine in March
, the innate criminality of Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice took on an
oddly utopian aspect, simply because it had proved itself to be proof
against all the forces of ‘improvement’:
Look at the head of Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice in the boat, holding up his
fingers as horns at Cuckold’s Point, and ask what penitentiary, what prison-dis-
cipline, would change the form of his forehead, ‘villainous low,’ or the concep-
tions lurking within it? (, )

Of course, as a guarantee of freedom, the principle of biological


determinism was ultimately no more preferable than the utilitarian
emphasis upon circumstance, as Hazlitt must have known. But that
was not the point. For him, the important thing was that the notion of
personality represented a form of conceptual resistance to the police-
philosophy of the Benthamites on the one hand, and to the social
inequalities of Regency society on the other. It was a way of opposing
both reaction and reform. And if there was a slight element of flippancy
in his celebration of the ‘incorrigibility’ of Hogarth’s Apprentice, his
writings on Rousseau found him more steadily in earnest. For in the hero
of the Confessions, as we have already seen, he could point to a character
whose radical resistance to reform had been of profound political value,
whose refusal to bend and bow with the times had helped to bring about
a truly revolutionary moment. Potentially, of course, such a politics of
personality was deeply anti-republican. The Jacobins themselves had
been very much aware of this, and had been constantly on the lookout
for would-be demagogues and dictators interested in developing a cult
of hero-worship. And Hazlitt himself, in a number of his own critical
writings, not least in the celebrated essay on ‘Coriolanus’, was fully
capable of recognising that, inscribed within the very concept of per-
sonal heroism itself there might be a tendency to idolise the freedom of
the privileged individual and to forget the libertarian claims of the mass.
But to some degree this problem could be seen to have resolved itself in
Rousseau, for he was, in effect, a new kind of hero, one in whom the free
expression of personality had never been autocratic or despotic, but had
always carried with it a deeply egalitarian resonance.
That is not to say, however, that Hazlitt did not fully acknowledge the
paradox of Rousseau’s revolutionary incorrigibility. He was, in this
respect, a good deal more penetrating than many of his liberal contem-
poraries, who were often so desperate to defend Jean-Jacques from
Burke’s charge of vanity that they ended up by bowdlerising his work.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
For example in his Essay on Christianity Shelley was to offer a remarkably
unconvincing account of Rousseau’s character, which he compared to
that of another celebrated revolutionary martyr, none another than
Jesus Christ himself, not only on account of their both having been
champions of the principles of benevolence and equality, but also, so
Shelley argued, because of the great similarity in their habits of thought
and feeling.6 Better known, however, and rather more convincing, was
Germaine de Staël’s eulogium, which was first published in the Lettres sur
. . . Jean-Jacques Rousseau of , in which Jean-Jacques had been
excused his unfortunate errors on the principle that he was, first and
foremost, an abstract idealist, a man who lived in dreams and visions,
whose imagination had been his predominant faculty.
In his essay ‘On the Character of Rousseau’, written for The Examiner
in , Hazlitt was to launch a critique of de Staël’s view, essentially
because he saw it as a serious misjudgement both of Rousseau’s author-
ial personality and of the nature and tendency of the imagination. For
Hazlitt the imagination was a fundamentally disinterested faculty, a form
of intensified sympathy, and in that sense a principle that effectively tran-
scended the bounds of the self. In Rousseau, however, he saw only exces-
sive sensibility, an ‘acute or morbid feeling of all that related to his own
impressions, to the objects of his life’, a faculty which had ‘tyrannised’
over both his imagination and his reason, insinuating itself into all of his
works. Like Burke before him, Hazlitt was even tempted to see the cele-
brated Discourse on Inequality as a covert expression of this ‘excessive
egotism’:
Hence in part also his quarrel with the artificial institutions and distinctions of
society, which opposed so many barriers to the unrestrained indulgence of his
will, and allured his imagination to scenes of pastoral simplicity or of savage
life, where the passions were either not excited or left to follow their own
impulse, – where the petty vexations and irritating disappointments of common
life have no place, – and where the tormenting pursuits of the arts and sciences
were lost in pure animal enjoyment or indolent repose. (, )
But where Hazlitt differed from Burke was in the fact that, against all
odds, he found a utopian element in all of this self-absorption.
Paradoxically enough, it was precisely on account of his intense
selfishness, Hazlitt thought, that Rousseau had exerted such a powerful
effect on subsequent readers:
Every feeling in his mind became a passion. His craving after excitement was
an appetite and a disease. His interest in his own thoughts and feelings was
always wound up to the highest pitch; and hence the enthusiasm which he
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
excited in others. He owed the power which he exercised over the opinions of
all Europe, by which he created numberless disciples, and overturned estab-
lished systems, to the tyranny which his feelings, in the first instance, exercised
over himself. The dazzling fire of his reputation was kindled by the same fire
that fed upon his vitals. (, )
And in a footnote appended to this section, Hazlitt went on to explain,
in rather more detail, exactly what he meant:
He did more towards the French Revolution than any other man. Voltaire, by
his wit and penetration, had rendered superstition contemptible, and tyranny
odious: but it was Rousseau who brought the feeling of irreconcilable enmity to
ranks and privileges, above humanity, home to the bosom of every man, –
identified it with all the pride of intellect, and with the deepest yearnings of the
human heart. (, n)
The difficulty was that, for Hazlitt, this Promethean conception of
Rousseau went directly against the grain of his own metaphysics. In his
very first publication, the Essay on the Principles of Human Action of ,
he had been preoccupied with attempting to refute the self-love philoso-
phy of Helvétius and Holbach as a means of undermining the intellec-
tual basis of the discourse of utilitarianism. And he did this by
circumventing the long-running philosophical argument about whether
selfishness or benevolence was the natural disposition of man, and by
undertaking to deconstruct the opposition between them. In order for
someone to be behaving selfishly, Hazlitt reasoned, they would have to
be acting in the interests of their future self, a self which had not, strictly
speaking, yet come into being, whose conditions and circumstances were
not yet known, and whose very existence was therefore, in a sense, quite
imaginary. But if a man was able to sympathise with an imaginary future
self, then surely he was also capable of sympathising with another
present self, that is, another person, for such an effort of sympathy would
involve exactly the same kind of self-projection. Thus it was impossible
to argue that selfishness was inherent in the nature of man because it was
itself grounded upon the very same principle of imaginative sympathy
that provided the foundation of benevolence. And it was by this means
that Hazlitt sought to unravel the methodology of Benthamism, which
based its theory of social legislation upon the notion that society was
composed of a mass of self-interested individuals, whose interests were
all fundamentally opposed, and who therefore required governing
institutions which did not bother to concern themselves with motives but
only with effects.
However, Hazlitt’s attempt to reinstate sympathy to its former role as
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
a guiding principle of social and moral philosophy was singularly
unsuccessful. Written in the same spirit of abstract inquiry that had
characterised Godwin’s Political Justice, the Essay on the Principles of Human
Action had fallen ‘still-born from the press’, largely, according to its
author, because it had been written in a style that was too dry and meta-
physical for his readership’s taste. Hazlitt’s essay on sympathy had failed,
in a way, to be sympathetic; a lesson he was to take very much to heart.
So much so, indeed, that he may well have had this early failure in mind
when he reflected upon the continuing appeal of Rousseau’s Confessions
in the mid-s. For here was a text which had positively demanded
sympathy from its readers, had effectively torn it out of them, forcing
them to discover within themselves the grounds and conditions of dis-
interested and virtuous action. The difficulty was, of course, that
Rousseau was so conspicuously lacking in sympathy himself, having
been so powerfully caught up in his own thoughts and feelings that he
had tended to neglect those of others. And this, it could be argued, was
probably one of the reasons why Hazlitt decided to represent him as a
Promethean figure, a combination of Titanic legislator and holy scape-
goat, who had, by indulging selfishness to excess, somehow succeeded in
redeeming it, transforming it into its opposite.
It is perhaps significant, therefore, that Hazlitt’s ‘On the Character of
Rousseau’ should have been written just at the time when its author was
beginning his career as a reflective essayist, as if it had suddenly become
clear to him, through his re-interpretation of the Confessions, firstly that
autobiography was a powerful means of dramatising the sympathetic
process, and secondly that, precisely because of the principle of reci-
procity that it encouraged between writer and reader, it was still, poten-
tially at least, a radical form. And just over ten years later, with the
experience of many autobiographical essays behind him, he was to offer
an even more confident and complete account of the process by which
Rousseau’s egotism had engendered universal sympathy, during a
friendly debate in the Conversations of Northcote:

Before we can take an author entirely to our bosoms, he must be another self;
and he cannot be this if he is not one but all mankind’s epitome. It was this which
gave such an effect to Rousseau’s writings, that he stamped his own character
and the image of his self-love on the public mind – there it is and there it will
remain in spite of everything. Had he possessed more comprehension of thought
or feeling, it would only have diverted him from his object. But it was the excess
of his egotism and his utter blindness to everything else, that found a corre-
sponding sympathy in the conscious feelings of every human breast. (, )
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
In this formulation, egotism emerges as a valuable conduit of sympa-
thetic feeling, the best way for a writer to encourage in his readers a truly
elastic response. Of course, in the Conversations Hazlitt does not have it
all his own way, indeed it is one of the chief strengths of this book, and
grist to its author’s mill, that the conversations contained within it should
have offered such a vivid representation of the possibilities and problems
of intellectual sympathy between strong personalities. For example, in
the course of the conversation quoted above, ‘Northcote’ raises a ques-
tion which had been conspicuous by its absence in the ‘Character of
Rousseau’, the question of Rousseau’s influence upon the French
Revolution itself, not merely as a political prophet but as a philosophical
theorist whose ideas actually shaped its course. Having listened to
Hazlitt’s eulogy, he responds by stating that the name of Rousseau would
be forever associated in his mind with ‘all the gloomy humours of a mob-
government, which attempted from their ignorance to banish truth and
justice from the world’, to which the character of Hazlitt offers no real
reply (, ). Ten years before, in the ‘Character’ of  Hazlitt had
almost entirely suppressed the link, which many of the commentators of
the s, most notably Wollstonecraft and Burke, had been so very keen
to make, between Rousseau’s personality and his political theory. And it
is interesting to reflect on why this might have been so: perhaps he con-
sidered that in order to recuperate Rousseauvian autobiography as a
form of radical discourse it was necessary to repress the extent to which
it was associated with the politics of the Contrat Social.
The historical moment of Hazlitt’s essay may have been significant in
this respect, for it was written during a period of great change in the field
of European politics, with every nation readjusting itself to life after
Napoleon. As Simon Bainbridge has shown, Bonaparte was a great hero
for Hazlitt, so much so, in fact, that for a long time he considered him
the last upholder of the fundamental principles of the Revolution, not
primarily because of his role as a legislator, which it was difficult to rec-
oncile with the ideals of , but because of what he was in himself, a
man of genius who had exposed the double sham of monarchy and aris-
tocracy by relying solely upon his talent to carry him to the top.7 As his
biographers have shown, Waterloo was a great blow to Hazlitt; for him,
it seemed to him that the fall of Napoleon signalled the final triumph of
the principle of Legitimacy over liberty and equality. But it was
also equally disappointing in another way, because of the way in which
it showed another one of his idols to possess feet of clay. Up until
the mid-s Wordsworth had been an important figure for him, a
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
fundamentally democratic poet heroicially opposing a predominantly
reactionary literary establishment. But with the publication of The
Excursion in , and then the Thanksgiving Ode shortly after the victory
at Waterloo, the extent of Wordsworth’s abandonment of the cause of
liberty had become glaringly apparent.
Having lost two such champions of the Jacobin cause, it was perhaps
natural, then, that Hazlitt should have found himself returning to
Rousseau in the years after Waterloo. Jean-Jacques was, after all, a writer
in whom republican values had always found a steadfast champion. And
yet even so, it is still quite significant that, just at the very beginning of
his career as a reflective essayist, he should have been moved to ponder
the citizen of Geneva’s politics of confession. Partly, he must have been
assessing the viability of Rousseau as a revolutionary hero, examining
whether his character and career might be seen to offer an alternative
model to that of Wordsworth or Napoleon. And yet above and beyond
this he must also have been keen to assess whether the reflective style of
Rousseau’s autobiographical writing might not provide some kind of
template for his own.
What was especially valuable about the Confessions, it seems, for
Hazlitt, was the democratic quality of Rousseau’s recollections, the
extent to which, because of the very simplicity of his prevailing passions,
every class of reader was able to read them with sympathy. As Hazlitt
himself put it: ‘We are never tired of this work for it everywhere presents
us with pictures which we can fancy to be counterparts of our own exis-
tence’ (, ). And it was this combination of democratic politics and
aesthetic appeal that rendered Rousseau both rich and rare. For as John
Whale has pointed out, there was a deep tension in much of Hazlitt’s
work between politics and aesthetics, so that many of the qualities that
he considered valuable in an aesthetic context – imaginative intensity,
sensibility, suggestibility – he tended to consider as perniciously ‘aristo-
cratic’ in political terms; while regarding a substantial number of the
foremost virtues of political radicalism – rationality, common sense, a
respect for hard facts – as rather deficient and deadening if they ever
strayed into the realm of aesthetics.8 Thus it was that he found himself
admiring Burke because he had produced the most imaginative prose
ever to grace the world of politics, while criticising him, almost in the
same breath, for having used his literary imagination to bedazzle the
English public into an acceptance of aristocratic principles. And in his
essay on ‘Coriolanus,’ Hazlitt had even gone so far as to raise the
possibility that there might be an aristocratic tendency at the heart of
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
poetry itself, that it might be dangerous for republicans to play on the
see-saw of literary sublimity precisely because of the dialectic it set up
between perceiving subject and sublime object, constructing aesthetic
response in terms of an ongoing oscillation between the abject worship
of power and its proud possession, an endlessly alternating current of
strength and weakness, tyranny and servility. One obvious example of
this was the Windsor Keep passage from Burke’s Letter to a Noble Lord – a
passage that Hazlitt himself could not help admiring – which repre-
sented a deliberate attempt to prop up the institution of the monarchy
through the manipulation of a sublime effect. But for Hazlitt the
‘Coriolanus’ principle was also present in some supposedly radical
works, Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage for instance, in which he considered that
the fundamentally reactionary nature of Byron’s narrative persona
almost completely undermined the apparent liberalism of the poem’s
content. Indeed such was the nature of Harolde, Hazlitt argued, that in
confronting the great natural and historical monuments of Europe, he
was always seeking to bask in their reflected glow, offering himself up to
the reader as a kind of sublime object, deserving of awestruck
contemplation. With Rousseau, however, it had been a different matter,
as he showed in an article ‘On Byron and Wordsworth’ which was first
published in :
When Rousseau called out – ‘Ah! voilà de la pervenche!’ in a transport of joy at sight
of the periwinkle, because he had first seen this little blue flower in company
with Madame Warens thirty years before, I cannot help thinking that any aston-
ishment expressed at the sight of a palm-tree, or even of Pompey’s Pillar, is
vulgar compared to this! (, )

Reversing expectations, Hazlitt finds the poetry of the noble lord


Byron more ‘vulgar’ than that of the vagabond Rousseau, precisely
because the former is so concerned to flaunt its nobility. When con-
fronted with the sites of classical antiquity Hazlitt suggests, Byron
expresses the feelings that any schoolboy would have been expected to
have if presented with the same scene, and yet thinks all the better of
himself for having had them. Whereas Rousseau, by contrast, even when
he is indulging in a series of deeply personal recollections, does so in
order to appeal to the reader, and not simply to awe him. In this respect,
Hazlitt suggests, he is superior even to the Wordsworth of The Excursion.
Significantly, in order to force home his point, he refers to those sections
of the Confessions and the Rêveries in which Rousseau described the asso-
ciative link by which the sight of a little periwinkle had reminded him of
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
his former lover and protector Madame de Warens, long since deceased.
And what is notable about this choice is that it was a means of supply-
ing an answer not only to Byron, but also to Burke, whose famous
recollection of Marie-Antoinette in the Reflections provides an instructive
contrast with the passage on the little blue flower. For what is distinctive
about Rousseau’s act of recollection is that it is prompted by an object
that is insignificant in itself, so that in reading the passage the reader is
immediately made aware of the fact that its ‘sublime’ effect is entirely
produced by a contemplation of the power – or ‘virtue’ – of the mind to
resist the ravages of time. As in Wordsworth, therefore, one is shown that
‘sublimity’ is something which is generated not from without but from
within. But to a greater extent even than Wordsworth, Rousseau creates
a spirit of fellowship with his reader because of the relationship he sets
up between the objective triviality of his memories and their deep sub-
jective significance, for as Hazlitt himself was to describe it, when talking
about the same passage in his ‘Character of Rousseau’: ‘Rousseau’s
exclamation . . . comes more home to the mind than Mr Wordsworth’s
discovery of a linnet’s nest’ because ‘prose is better adapted to express
those local and personal feelings, which are inveterate habits of mind,
than poetry, which embodies its imaginary creations’ (, ). In this
mood, it was not so much the ‘political’ dimension of the Confessions
which appealed to Hazlitt, but the fact that by engaging in a detailed
examination of his own absolute uniqueness Rousseau had somehow
succeeded in unveiling a general truth about the relationship between
memory and identity, discovering a principle of democratic commonal-
ity in the very singularity of his own feelings.
Thus it was the purpose of Rousseau, in Hazlitt’s reflective essays of
the s, not merely to remind him of the political apostasy of Burke,
Byron and the Lake Poets, but also to provide a charm against their aes-
thetic power. And this led him to return, again and again, to the various
landscapes of liberty that were littered through Rousseau’s writings,
visions which predated and outshone those of Wordsworth, Coleridge
and Byron, and which could therefore serve as a reminder of the ideal-
ism of the revolutionary decade:
We spent two whole years in reading these two works [The Confessions and La
Nouvelle Heloïse] and (gentle reader, it was when we were young) in shedding tears
over them.

– ‘As fast as the Arabian trees


Their medicinal gums.’
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
They were the happiest years of our life. We may well say of them, sweet is the
dew of their memory, and pleasant the balm of their recollection! There are,
indeed, impressions which neither time nor circumstances can efface. (, )
In this way Rousseau’s personal reminiscences became part of
Hazlitt’s own past, so that the former’s way with memory filled the
memory of the latter. And this was not simply a matter of praising
Rousseau’s confessional mode, but of seeking to emulate it. Quite often
the two went hand in hand, as in this passage from the essay ‘On Going
A Journey’ in which Hazlitt used Rousseau in order to take a swipe at
the Lake poets:
It was on the tenth of April, , that I sat down to a volume of the New
Heloïse, at the inn at Llangollen, over a bottle of sherry and a cold chicken. The
letter I chose was that in which St Preux describes his feelings as he first caught
a glimpse from the heights of Jura of the Pays de Vaud, which I had brought
with me as a bonne bouche to crown the evening with. It was my birthday, and I
had for the first time come from a place in the neighbourhood to visit this
delightful spot. The road to Llangollen turns off between Chirk and Wrexham;
and on passing a certain point, you come all at once upon the valley, which
opens like an amphitheatre, broad, barren hills rising in majestic state on either
side, with ‘green upland swells that echo the bleat of flocks’ below, and the river
Dee babbling over its stony bed in the midst of them. The valley at this time
‘glittered green with sunny showers,’ and a budding ash-tree dipped its tender
branches in the chiding stream. How proud, how glad I was to walk along the
high road that commanded the delicious prospect, repeating the lines I have just
quoted from Mr. Coleridge’s poems! But besides the prospect which opened
beneath my feet, another also opened to my inward sight, a heavenly vision, on
which were written, in letters large as Hope could make them, these four words,
L, G, L, V; which have since faded into the light of
common day, or mock my idle gaze.
‘The beautiful is vanished, and returns not.’
Still would I return some time or other to this enchanted spot; but I would
return to it alone. What other self could I find to share that influx of thoughts,
of regret, and delight, the traces of which I could hardly conjure up to myself,
so much they have been broken and defaced! I could stand on some tall rock,
and overlook the precipice of years that separates me from what I then was. I
was at that time going shortly to visit the poet whom I have above named.
Where is he now? Not only I myself have changed; the world itself, which then
was new to me, has become old and incorrigible. Yet will I turn to thee in
thought, O sylvan Dee, as Thou wert, in joy, in youth and gladness, and thou
shalt always be to me the river of Paradise where I will drink of the waters of
life freely! (, )
Displaying his characteristic genius for allusion, Hazlitt makes his
valley rebound with echoes of the Lakers. In providing an occasion for
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
the author to reflect upon the continuity of his own feelings, Hazlitt’s
‘Sylvan Dee’ fulfils the same purpose as Wordsworth’s ‘Sylvan Wye’ in
the Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey of . And as in
Resolution and Independence the work of memory helps him to counter the
great fear of a descent from ‘youth and gladness’ into ‘despondency and
madness’. In this way Hazlitt draws strength from some of the most
powerful lines of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetry, while at the same
time developing an ironic critique of them. For by parodying
Wordsworth’s early expressions of steadfastness, he endeavours to
suggest that, politically speaking, the poet has been anything but con-
stant. And similarly, by citing snatches of Coleridge’s early poetry before
breaking off to ask ‘Where is he now?’, he succeeds in recalling the
radical promise of his early years, while also highlighting his subsequent
decline.
Significantly, during the course of his rewriting of Tintern Abbey,
Hazlitt makes clear that he is unlike Wordsworth in that he has no
Dorothy at his side to share his reflections, suggesting that what was once
a collective commitment to the ideals of the French Revolution has long
since dwindled into a solitary recollection. And in this way he can be
seen to cultivate the figure of the Rousseauvian solitary, offering himself
as the still point of a turning world, a utopian principle, resisting the
desperate decline of history. For in Hazlitt as in Rousseau, memory
serves to restore the present self to a sense of its real identity. It does not,
as in Wordsworth’s dialectical autobiography, confront the authorial self
with a ‘being’ in its past with whom it has but tentative and problematic
links. And so, like Rousseau’s ‘natural man’, Hazlitt represents himself
as a revolutionary idealist frozen in the past, continuing to endure
beneath the grime of history, intact and essentially unchanged, an
unshakeably incorrigible spirit, patiently biding his time.9 ‘What sur-
prises me in looking back to the past’, he wrote, in his ‘Farewell to Essay
Writing’ of March , ‘is to find myself so little changed in the time
. . . the continuity of impressions is the only thing on which I pride
myself.’ Steadfast in his continued commitment to the ideals of the
French Revolution, he considered that ‘great principles and original
works are a match even for time itself ’ (, ); for him as for Rousseau,
there was no history of the self, only a history of the way in which time
and circumstances served to alienate it from the outside world or from
self-knowledge. In this way both writers can be seen to have developed
a cult of personal character which was designed to resist the progress of
‘practical, positive matter-of-fact improvement’ (, ).
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 


In a review of The Excursion published in The Examiner in , Hazlitt
dismissed Wordsworth’s newfound Christian optimism with a dramatic
flourish:
. . . nor can we indulge with him in the fond conclusion afterwards hinted at,
that one day our triumph, the triumph of humanity and liberty, may be com-
plete. For this purpose we think several things necessary which are impossible.
It is a consummation which cannot happen till the nature of things is changed,
till the many become as united as the one, till romantic generosity shall be as
common as gross selfishness, till reason shall have acquired the obstinate blind-
ness of prejudice, till the love of power and of change shall no longer goad man
on to restless action, till passion and will, hope and fear, love and hatred, and
the objects proper to excite them, that is, alternate good and evil, shall no longer
sway the bosoms and businesses of men. (, )
In The Excursion Wordsworth had recommended a return to the
national church as a means of consoling the disappointed ‘solitaries’ of
his generation for the failure of the French Revolution. Religious unity
and spiritual equality were offered as transcendental alternatives to the
transparency and community of the Jacobin festival ideal. Hazlitt,
however, refused to be consoled, reasserting his continuing commitment
to the principles of ‘humanity and liberty’ while representing their
‘triumph’ as an impossible dream. Like Robespierre in the last speech
before his death, Hazlitt’s pessimism was thus revolutionary rather than
reformist, registering itself as a personal resistance to history. ‘What does
it matter that Brutus has killed the tyrant,’ Robespierre had asked, in his
celebrated speech on political morality, ‘Tyranny continues to live on in
people’s hearts, and Rome exists nowhere but in Brutus.’10 Similarly,
Hazlitt was increasingly to depict himself as the last of the Jacobins; a
microcosm of the unified general will, ‘till the many become as united
as the one’.
Or so it sometimes seems, for although Hazlitt regularly emulated
Rousseau’s rhetoric of confession, he was very guarded on the question
of his civic ideal. In the essay ‘On Reason and Imagination’, for
example, he described the Contrat Social as ‘– a work of great ability but
extreme formality of structure,’ whose author had been ‘too ambitious
of an exceedingly technical and scientific mode of reasoning, scarcely
attainable in the mixed questions of human life’ (, ). This withholds
more than it gives out, suggesting that behind Hazlitt’s purely stylistic
critique he had a profound suspicion of Rousseau’s neo-Spartan politics.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
And this can be further glimpsed in some of his scattered reflections on
the notion of a public spirit, all of which suggest how aware he was of
the extent to which such a concept had been manipulated, by both the
political left and right. In the conclusion to the essay ‘On Personal
Character,’ for instance, he asked:
Suppose public spirit to become the general principle of action in the commu-
nity – how would it shew itself ? Would it not then become the fashion, like
loyalty, and have its apes and parrots, like loyalty? The man of principle would
no longer be distinguished from the crowd, the servum pecus imitatorum. There is
a cant of democracy as well as of aristocracy; and we have seen both tri-
umphant in our day. The Jacobin of  was the Anti-Jacobin of . The
loudest chaunters of the Paeans of liberty were the loudest applauders of the
restored doctrine of divine right. (, )
According to Hazlitt’s analysis, Robespierre’s Festival of the Supreme
Being, and the celebration of Wellington’s victory were but two sides of
the same pernicious coin. Thus he was prepared to acknowledge the
counter-revolutionary version of the Jacobin period as a time during
which an artificially contrived public opinion had outlawed the exercise
of private judgment, while insisting that exactly the same could be said
of the atmosphere in England at the time of Waterloo. And in this way
he showed something of his dissenting, neo-Godwinian roots, for funda-
mentally, he was too much of an individualist not to be profoundly sus-
picious of the Revolution’s collectivist phase.
In his mature journalism this commitment to the value of private
judgment over and above that of public opinion expressed itself in an
unconscious distinction he frequently made between the people and the
public. In the modern period, as he saw it, public opinion was no longer
the consensus of the judgments of private people engaged in public
debate, nor was it the spontaneous reflection of common sentiment. It
had become a dangerous abstraction, with an independent existence,
fatally prone to the manipulations of the government and the media.
‘The public ear,’ he wrote, ‘is at the mercy of the first impudent pre-
tender who chooses to fill it with noisy assertions, or false surmises, or
secret whispers’ ‘– so that we may safely say the public is the dupe of
public opinion, not its parent’ (, ).
When Hazlitt invoked ‘the people’, however, he was referring to a
spontaneous popular principle which he could still admire:
Mobs, in fact, then, are almost always right in their feelings, and often in their
judgments, on this very account – that being utterly unknown to and dis-
connected with each other, they have no point of union or principle of co-oper-
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
ation between them, but the natural sense of justice recognised by all persons
in common. (, )
Significantly, he was was only prepared to align himself with ‘the
people’ against the private interests of corporate bodies if he could con-
sider them as a collection of individuals independently following a
common purpose. He remained remarkably faithful, in this respect, to
the Rousseauvian concept of a spontaneous, unreflective general will.
But as soon as the popular interest began to form itself into anything
resembling a corporate body he grew highly mistrustful, for perhaps
even more than Robespierre himself, he was profoundly suspicious of
the politics of faction. In many ways, this was the individualism of
Political Justice in its residual form, and as with Godwin, it can be seen as
an unconscious form of resistance to the growing challenge of working-
class combination. Paradoxically enough, therefore, by invoking the
moral economy of the eighteenth-century English mob, Hazlitt
betrayed the limits of his own bourgeois radicalism, because in so doing
he effectively confessed the extent to which he was opposed to radical
combination of any kind. Thus despite the fact that he had been quick
to expose the class hypocrisy of the utilitarians in his Reply to Malthus, he
was to remain hampered, all the same, by a class bias of his own. For
even though he continued to express his commitment, throughout his
career, to the principle of popular sovereignty, that did not prevent him
from remaining opposed to the principle of popular politics.
In part this was a response to the French Revolution itself. Theoretically
supportive of Rousseau’s political theory, he was also mindful of the way
in which it had been employed by popular pressure groups and revolution-
ary factions, and of the way in which the peculiarly abstract nature of the
principle of the general will had rendered it fatally prone to misappropria-
tion and impersonation. When ‘the cant of public spirit’ had become the
fashion, he argued, politics had been transformed into mere parrotry. And
in his Life of Napoleon of  he was to depict Robespierre as the absolute
embodiment of this form of political ‘dandyism’.
[Robespierre’s] refinements in theory, his cruelties in practice might come
under the denomination of political dandyism, or were the height of fashion, the
opinion of the day carried to excess and outrage, because he had no feelings of
his own to oppose to a cant-phrase or party-Shibboleth, or to qualify a verbal
dogma. (, –n)

On occasions like this, there is little to separate Hazlitt from conserva-


tive historians such as his contemporary Sir Walter Scott, who also
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
depicted Robespierre as a contemptible political automaton in the
revolutionary section of his own Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Elsewhere in
the Life, however, Hazlitt was to represent the Incorruptible as if he had
been a true idealist, recalling the emphasis made in the mid-s by
Coleridge and Thelwall: ‘I do not conceive it impossible’, he remarked,
‘that he thought of [the Social Contract and the Profession of Faith of A
Savoyard Vicar] when the mob were dancing round him at his own door’.
And thus, without making explicit comment on the appropriateness of
Robespierre’s reading of Rousseau, he was able to acknowledge that it
had probably served to harden his political resolve: ‘Evil is strong enough
in itself ’, he commented, ‘when it has good for its end it is conscience
proof ’ (, ).
Given Hazlitt’s long-standing resistance to the Jacobin cant of public
spirit, then, it is not perhaps surprising that his revolutionary longings,
when they came to be expressed in his reflective essays, tended to articu-
late themselves in terms of a series of extremely private prospects of
past liberty, rather than open meditations upon its festival ideal. For
example, if we return to the passage from ‘On Going A Journey’ which
was quoted earlier, we can see that, above and beyond the allusions to
Wordsworth and Coleridge, an overmastering reference to Rousseau’s
La Nouvelle Heloïse informs and colours the whole. And the letter that
Hazlitt refers to is the one in which Saint-Preux described his long-
awaited return to the valley of the Pays de Vaud, after years of enforced
exile, spent travelling the world. In this section of the novel, Rousseau’s
protagonist approaches Clarens in the full knowledge that his beloved
Julie has married Baron de Wolmar and that all his fondest hopes have
been irrevocably dashed. And when he enters the mountains, he
plunges into a state of deep reverie that is as much a yearning for the
past as an appreciation of the scene before him, as he suddenly
becomes subject to ‘a thousand delicious memories which reawaken all
of the feelings I have ever tasted’.11 Clearly, the Llangollen scene in ‘On
Going a Journey’ was sketched very much with this reverie in mind, for
its dream of ‘L, G, L, V’, that ‘other prospect’
which opens itself out before the author’s ‘inward sight’, is itself a
recollection of the mental landscape of the early books of La Nouvelle
Heloïse.
As we saw in chapter four, Saint-Preux becomes reacquainted with
Julie and her husband on his return to Switzerland, and is subsequently
invited to reside at Clarens. And Rousseau then proceeds to give a
detailed encomium of this utopian collectivity while treating Saint-
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
Preux’s emotional recalcitrance with continuing sympathy. In this sense,
the novel’s ending, in which the dying Julie tries to rechannel Saint-
Preux’s desire for her into a love of the community as a whole, can be
interpreted as an attempt by the author to harmonise the twin poles of
his own personality, to bring the solitary individual of the Confessions into
the legislative fold of the Contrat Social. It is significant, therefore, that in
his reflections upon La Nouvelle Heloïse Hazlitt never actually reaches
Clarens, preferring to dwell upon the prospect afforded to Saint-Preux
just before his return.12 In order to preserve the novel as a locus of liberty,
it seems, he had to repress the régime of Baron de Wolmar, as if he were
conscious that to return to Julie’s revolutionary festival, after so many
years, would be to find it transformed into a Benthamite workhouse.
Edward Thompson was one of the first to draw attention to the ‘curious
arrest’ and ‘stasis’ in Hazlitt’s many recollections of the glad dawn of the
French Revolution.13 And this is especially true of the vision of freedom
in the passage from ‘On Going a Journey’, which like the frieze on his
friend John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, both conjures up and then
hides the image of the republican city-state, creating a lacuna which is
also the open grave of ancient liberty, ‘and not a soul to tell/Why thou
art desolate, can e’er return’.14
At first glance Rousseau’s cultivation of the unique claims of the self
in the Confessions might have seemed to sit oddly with his call for each
citizen to identify his particular will with that of the general in the Contrat
Social. However, as we saw in chapter two, Robespierre was to prove that
there was no contradiction between Jean-Jacques’ political theory and
his autobiographical practice. He showed that they were the objective
and subjective poles of the same political dialectic. According to this
view of things, Rousseauvian confession was seen to represent the
general will under siege, rendered individual and imperfect by social and
political circumstances: far from disconnecting the self from society, it
was a way of defining the aristocratic obstacle to a unified general will.
And as has been noted, Robespierre was not a populist like Marat or
Hébert, he did not pander to popular taste in his political journalism.
Rather he followed Rousseau in depicting himself as a transparent
receptacle of the desires of the people, insisting that all factions, parties,
corporate bodies and private conspiracies that served to separate his
individual will from that of the collective should be mercilessly destroyed
in order that the unity of the republic could be achieved.
Thus far, we have seen how Hazlitt employed Rousseau’s confessional
discourse as a way of resisting the forces of reaction and reform,
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
cultivating the latter’s tone of incorrigibility, excessive sensibility and
self-conscious isolation in order to generate a libertarian effect. But it has
also become clear that he was no enthusiast for ‘public spirit’ either, and
that he remained highly aware of the extent to which Rousseau’s cult of
personality was always threatening to recall Robespierre’s coercive poli-
tics of the will. So, then, his overriding task was to find a way of pre-
serving his commitment to the revolutionary tradition without seeming
to endorse the politics of revolutionary government, and he did this by
cultivating Rousseau’s festival vision as a distant prospect displaced into
the past. In this way his private confessions continued to contain a public
resonance, but one that was inescapably retrospective and nostalgic,
rather than prospective or reformist. Thus in Hazlitt’s hands,
Rousseauvian autobiography became drained of the legislative poten-
tial that it had possessed in Robespierre, and even residually in
Wollstonecraft and Wordsworth, transforming itself into a purely
oppositional technique. In that sense it can be seen as both a protest
against, and a symptom of, the decline of middle-class republicanism in
England.


Long before the Poor Law Amendment Act of  utilitarian doctrines
had begun to influence the government of the British Empire. Mill’s
History of British India () had earned him a place at India House. So
too Malthus was made the first professor of political economy in Britain,
on the strength of his Essay on the Principle of Population of .15 And by
the s the legislative principles of the ageless Jeremy Bentham were
already beginning to influence administrative policy in the colonies and
in newly independent Latin America. Of all Hazlitt’s variously disdain-
ful and despairing responses to this meteoric rise, scattered throughout
his oeuvre, perhaps the most concerted critique was contained in a mag-
azine article published in , a dialogue on utilitarianism entitled ‘On
the New School of Reform’:
Where is the use of getting rid of the trammels of superstition and slavery, if
we are immediately to be handed over to these new ferrets and inspectors of a
Police-Philosophy; who pay domiciliary visits to the human mind, catechise an
expression, impale a sentiment, put every enjoyment to the rack, leave you not
a moment’s ease or repose, and imprison all the faculties in a round of cant-
phrases – the Shibboleth of a party? (, )
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
Noticing that the Peel Government was already giving the utilitarians
‘good œillades’ (, ), Hazlitt was highly suspicious of the comparative
ease with which the new approach to reform had insinuated itself into
the existing political system. Despite its professed aim to rationalise and
democratise society, the discourse of utility was showing itself to be
increasingly complicit with the interests of ‘Old Corruption’. And in
order to break up this new alliance, Hazlittt tried to discredit it in the
mind of his middle-class readership by linking the utilitarians with the
Jacobin tradition. He did this by insinuating that Bentham, Malthus,
MacCulloch and Ricardo shared the same legislative zeal as the French
revolutionaries of the s, they had merely changed its focus.
Are they not equally at war with the rich and the poor? And having failed (for
the present) in their project of cashiering kings, do they not give scope to their
troublesome, overbearing humour, by taking upon them to snub and lecture the
poor gratis? (, )
In his reference to the ‘cashiering’ of kings, Hazlitt was self-con-
sciously rehearsing a phrase from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the
Revolution in France (), as a means of linking the philosophical radicals
with the constitution-mongers of the revolutionary decade. Then he
went on to argue that the increasing influence of the utilitarians upon the
government and the press had served to ‘strip the cause of Reform of
everything like a misalliance with elegance, taste, decency, common sense
or polite literature’. And this explicit attack upon what he called the
‘Jacobin jargon’ of the reformers was identifiably Burkean too, recalling
the appeal made in the Reflections on behalf of ‘all the super-added ideas,
furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination’ which had been so
rudely dismissed by the ‘sophisters, economists and calculators’ of the
Constituent Assembly.16 In setting up this explicit opposition between
Jacobin politics and a civilised aesthetic, Hazlitt sought to discredit
Bentham and his followers by linking them with the rationalists who had
tried to reorganise the government of France on abstract principles.
Resurrecting painful memories of the French Revolution, he endeav-
oured to mobilise public opposition against the philosophical radicals by
insinuating that the disastrous mistakes of the past were in danger of
being repeated by the ‘state-doctors’ of the present.
However, to identify the utilitarians with the Jacobin tradition was a
rather paradoxical move for Hazlitt, especially when one thinks about
the general trend of his own politics. For in many respects he had already
offered himself to his readers as the last of the old-style Jacobins.
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
Denouncing the political treachery of former republicans such as
Wordsworth, John Stoddart, Coleridge and Southey in the article ‘On
the Connection between Toad-Eaters and Tyrants’ of  he had
defined a ‘true Jacobin’ as ‘one who does not believe in the divine right
of kings, or in any other alias for it, which implies that they reign ‘in con-
tempt of the will of the people,’ and he holds all such kings to be tyrants,
and their subjects slaves’ (, ). To his mind, the ‘true’ Jacobins had
remained faithful to the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the French
Revolution, refusing to succumb, as the Lake School had done, to the
threats and promises of arbitrary power. However, to do as he did in
‘The New School of Reform’, and link the utilitarians with the Jacobin
cause, could only serve to confuse this crucial definition, for it was clear
that he himself did not wish to make common cause with Bentham and
Malthus, nor did he consider them to fulfil the requirements of the
Jacobin spirit.
During the early years of the nineteenth century, the word ‘Jacobin’
could mean any one of a variety of things. It could signify a sympathy
for the French nation and its revolutionary ideals, or simply a general
commitment to democratic principles. It could refer to either or both
middle-class and working-class radicalism. References to ‘Jacobinism’
always recalled the reign of Robespierre, and the popular excesses of
–, but its specific meaning was often very dependent upon context.
It might refer to a commitment to popular sovereignty, or to the practice
of systematic philosophy; it might encompass the Revolution as a whole,
or simply its republican phase. As we have seen, in the counter-revolu-
tionary pamphlets he wrote during the early s Edmund Burke had
refused to differentiate between the various currents of French revolu-
tionary thought. He would not distinguish, for example, between the
bourgeois liberalism of the constitutional phase of the Revolution and
the Spartan civic humanism that rose to prominence during the First
Republic. For him, all aspects of the French experiment had been con-
taminated by a misguided commitment to abstract philosophy. The taint
of ‘Jacobinism’ had uniformly coloured the whole. And this refusal to
discriminate between the different strands of French politics was one of
the characteristics of English conservative ideology, which increasingly
came to pride itself upon a complete rejection of ‘French principles’.
Many former fellow-travellers were gradually to succumb to the pres-
sure of this discourse. Despite his ongoing awareness of the philosoph-
ical diversity of the French Enlightenment, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
was to offer a theoretical justification of Burke’s notion of Jacobinism in
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
the edition of The Friend for  October , arguing that one could see
a despotic tendency in the theories of Rousseau and Turgot, and that
this tendency had been realised in the political practice of Robespierre
and Bonaparte.17 It is important to recognise, however, that this homo-
genisation of the French Revolution was entirely under construction
during the Regency period, it had not yet reached the status of ortho-
doxy. Many reformers and republicans were still trying to save certain
specific strands of the revolutionary tradition from the general ignominy.
It was not only the Girondin memorialists in France who endeavoured
to differentiate between different forms of ‘Jacobinism’, liberals in
England also sought to salvage something from the wreckage.18 And in
a different way, apostates such as Robert Southey sought to excuse and
explain their movement from the radical to the conservative side of the
political spectrum by distinguishing the radical sentiments of the s
from those of the s. Writing in the Quarterly Review in , Southey
argued that during the revolutionary decade Jacobinism had been a lofty
enthusiasm of the ‘educated classes’ in England. Abandoned by them in
the wake of the Terror, it then ‘sunk down into the mob’. Once ardent
and utopian, it had become surly and violent: ‘While the spirit of
Jacobinism had thus evaporated from the top of the vessel,’ he wrote, ‘its
dregs were settling at the bottom’.19
In many ways, Hazlitt always strove to preserve the identity and
continuity of the Jacobin tradition: ‘Once a Jacobin always a Jacobin’
was a phrase with which he regularly taunted the apostate poets. Not
only did he refuse to acknowledge Southey’s excuses, he would not
accept the latter’s histrionic return to the principles of Church and State:
‘A Jacobin . . . who has shaken off certain well-known prejudices with
respect to kings or priests or nobles, cannot so easily resume whenever
his pleasure or his convenience may prompt him to attempt it’, he
argued, ‘and it is because he cannot resume them again in good earnest
that he endeavours to make up for this want of sincerity by violence’ (,
). For the most part, then, it is clear that Hazlitt considered
‘Jacobinism’ to be a species of opposition to the forces of privilege, but
in the essay ‘On the New School of Reform’ the word denoted a form
of philosophical radicalism that was clearly complicit with those forces.
Significantly, this confusion of terms and identities went some way
towards repeating the central confusions of French republicanism; it
served to recall the fact that these different forms of radicalism had once
been allied – during the early s to be precise – but only in order to
dramatise the fissure that had opened up between them. Once the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
philosophical radicals had been committed to the cause of the people,
Hazlitt suggested, now they were only interested in lecturing to them.
His mistrust of Malthus and Bentham, like Robespierre’s mistrust of
Condorcet and Helvétius, was thus grounded upon a suspicion that they
were fundamentally complicit with the aristocratic order. He felt that the
discourse of reform was attempting to distance itself from the promises
it had made to the people in the early s. But the problem was that
the way he chose to say this made the cost of his saying it clear, for when
he stigmatised the ‘Jacobin jargon’ of the utilitarians, he called the pro-
gressive force of his own form of Jacobinism radically into question.
To some degree, Hazlitt was himself aware of this: he recognised the
extent to which, in his hands, Jacobinism was not so much a positive
creed as a politics of opposition. As he described matters in an essay ‘On
Modern Apostates’ which was later published in the Political Essays of
: ‘to be a true Jacobin,’ he argued, ‘a man must be a good hater; but
this is the most difficult and the least amiable of all the virtues: the most
trying and the most thankless of all tasks. The love of liberty consists in
the hatred of tyrants’. And significantly enough, it was in his capacity as
a determined opponent of European despotism rather than as a legisla-
tor that Robespierre drew Hazlitt’s most fulsome praise in his Life of
Napoleon:
[Robespierre gave] the political machine the utmost possible momentum and
energy of which it was capable; to stagger the presumption and pride of the
Coalition by shewing on the opposite side an equally inveterate and intense
degree of determined hostility and ruthless vengeance; to out-face, to out-dare;
to stand the brunt not only of all the violence but of all the cant, hypocrisy,
obloquy and prejudice with which they were assailed . . . Few persons could be
found to help her at this exigency so well as Robespierre. (, –)
In the atmosphere of intense political agitation that prevailed in
England during the Peterloo period (–) Hazlitt regularly stigma-
tised Whigs, Tories and modern radicals alike, representing himself as a
solitary ‘Jacobin’ who owed allegiance to no party or persuasion. He res-
urrected the political terminology of the revolutionary period as a
gesture of defiance against the repressive measures of the Liverpool
government. By reminding his contemporaries of the debates and
oppositions of the early s, he strove to identify and yet also to under-
mine the rapprochement of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and
Stoddart with the literary and political establishment, and to keep alive
a sense of the middle-class revolutionary tradition. But in the calmer
climate of the s, his republicanism did not become more construc-
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
tive, it merely became more self-conscious. So that in choosing to accuse
the Lake poets and the utilitarians of continuing Jacobinism he was
often merely betraying the belatedness of his own republican senti-
ments, the extent to which his political terminology was no longer
appropriate to the changed situation of the early s.
In the essay ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’ first published in The Plain
Speaker in , Hazlitt speculated that there was a spirit of malignity at
the very heart of man. ‘Without something to hate’, he argued, ‘we
should lose the very springs of action.’ Initially this ‘pleasure of hating’
was described as if it were a timeless aspect of human life. Gradually,
however, was given an increasingly historical feel:
The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion,
and turns it into rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for
carrying fire, pestilence and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing
but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchful-
ness over the actions and motives of others. (, )

In this formulation, the historical source of the spirit of hating is the


French Jacobin Terror, with the suggestion that modern hating repre-
sents nothing but the surreptitious survival of revolutionary public spirit
in its negative private form. And in the reflective essays that he wrote in
the s for the London Magazine Hazlitt regularly represented his own
misanthropic spirit as a form of ‘sour Jacobinism’, flaunting his political
disappointment by reproducing the rhetoric of self-martyrdom which
had been developed by Rousseau and Robespierre:
As to my old opinions, I am heartily sick of them. I have reason, for they have
deceived me sadly. I was taught to think, and I was willing to believe, that genius
was not a bawd – that virtue was not a mask – that liberty was not a name –
that love had its seat in the human heart. Now I would care little if these words
were struck out of the dictionary, or if I had never heard them. Instead of patri-
ots and friends of freedom, I see nothing but the tyrant and the slave, the people
linked with kings to rivet on the chains of despotism and superstition. (, )
At the end of ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’, however, Hazlitt turned
this jeremiad upon himself, ironising his belated republicanism even as
he continued to indulge it: ‘We hate old friends, we hate old books, we
hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves’. ‘Have I not
reason to hate and despise myself ?’ he asks himself at last, ‘Indeed I do;
and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough’ (,
). And in this way, by adopting a deliberately detached stance towards
his own radical misanthropy, Hazlitt can be seen to have established a
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
new kind of relationship with his reading public. But what does it say
about his changing attitude to the relationship between literature and
politics that he should have been content to do this? In the final section
of this chapter I want to spend some time addressing this issue, primar-
ily by examining the ways in which Hazlitt’s development of a Jacobin
‘persona’ can be seen to have been both a result of, and a resistance to,
the changing nature of Regency politics, the development of mass
culture and the rise of the periodical press.


In her treatise De la Littérature Germaine de Staël had argued that, at its
best, literature was fundamentally progressive in nature. In the course of
an argument which was to have a considerable influence upon works
such as Shelley’s Defence of Poetry and his Philosophical View of Reform, she
argued that the arts were no different from the sciences in this respect,
since, like them, they were a means of anticipating and even facilitating
the improvements of the future. In an article entitled ‘Why the Arts Are
Not Progressive’ for Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, Hazlitt was to take issue with
de Staël’s argument, arguing that such a comparison was deeply flawed,
since the arts were not subject to the same narrative of incremental
progress that governed science. ‘What is mechanical, reducible to rule,
or capable of demonstration,’ he suggested, ‘is progressive, and admits
of gradual improvement: what is not mechanical or definite, but
depends on genius, taste, and feeling, very soon becomes stationary, or
retrograde, and loses more than it gains by transfusion’ (, ).
According to this view of things, every art form is the product of a
specific set of historical conditions, and has a definite life-span.
Dependent upon a fortuitous confluence of historical circumstances,
every genre will show itself subject to inevitable decay as soon as history
begins to flow in a different direction.
Hazlitt’s theory was a response to what he perceived to be the slow
decline of certain of the older art forms in his life-time. He considered
that in cultural terms he was living in a critical and prosaic age rather
than a dramatic or poetic one. Often he was moved to lament this
development, seeing the decline of poetry as a deplorable index of the
degeneration of contemporary society. For example, in the first of his
Lectures on the English Poets () he had been moved to assert that poetry
was not so much a form of writing as the vital principle of human exis-
tence: ‘It is not a branch of authorship, it is the stuff of which our life is
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
made. The rest is mere oblivion, a dead letter: for all that is worth
remembering is the poetry of it’ (, ). And in the early part of his lecture
he was not afraid to use poetry as the symbol of everything that the
utilitarians were threatening to destroy, suggesting that their plan was to
transform society into a ‘machine’ designed to carry everyone safely and
insipidly from one end of life to another ‘in a very comfortable prose
style.’ But at the end of his lecture he did also seem willing to acknowl-
edge that, as a species of writing, poetry was indeed a dying form, dis-
tinguishing himself from ‘progressive’ critics such as Thomas Love
Peacock only in his evident regret at its imminent demise: ‘As Homer is
the first vigour and lustihood, Ossian is the decay and old age of poetry’,
he wrote, ‘he lives only in the recollection and regret of his past.’20
So in certain moods, he would regard the decline in the popularity of
poetry as a symptom of the sickness of the age. But at other times,
however, he equally capable of attacking poetry as an archaic and servile
form that was complicit with arbitrary power, especially when he was
reflecting on the apostasy of the Lake poets, or on the self-aggrandise-
ment of Byron. And on these occasions, he offered modern prose writing
– as exemplified by the novel and the reflective essay – as a healthy alter-
native, considering that it explored personal experience in a form more
appropriate to a democratic order.21
In many respects, Hazlitt’s ‘progressive’ enthusiasm for prose was a
direct response to the transformation which literary culture had under-
gone during the early years of the nineteenth century. On a number of
occasions he was to assert that the rapid growth of the periodical press
had created a cultural climate in which the censorious influence of ‘Old
Corruption’ had been seriously diminished.22 And in an article entitled
‘Arguing in a Circle’ produced for The Liberal in July  he celebrated
this new order of things by indulging in a playful parody of Burke’s
Reflections:
While the affair is private and can be kept in a corner, personal fear and favour
are the ruling principles, might prevails over right; but bring it before the world
and truth and justice stand some chance. The public is too large a body to be
bribed or browbeat . . . ‘The age of chivalry is gone’ and that of constables, leg-
islators and Grub-Street writers has succeeded, and the glory of heraldry is
extinguished forever. (, )
Half-ironically Hazlitt lumps the writers of the new Grub Street
together with Robert Peel’s police constables and Bentham’s philosophi-
cal legislators as the dominant figures of the new age of ‘publicity’. In
this versions of things, the technology of mass surveillance and
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
communication was made to seem unproblematically positive in its
effects. Similarly, in an anonymous article on ‘The Periodical Press’ pub-
lished in the Edinburgh Review in May of the same year, Hazlitt warmly
welcomed the growth of a literary culture in which the influence of
privilege and power had dwindled, while recognising that it had ren-
dered the position of the writer far more precarious than ever before. As
a result of the new ‘rage’ for ‘conveying information in a easy and port-
able form’, he argued, fewer books were being published. This meant
that ‘the only authors who, as a class, are not starving, are periodical
essayists, and almost the only writers who can keep their reputation
above water are anonymous critics’. Of the journals that earned his
praise, the newly founded London Magazine was especially prominent.
And in listing the literary contributors that had helped to make the
periodical popular, he was not averse to giving himself honourable
mention: ‘Are there not the quaint and grave subtleties of Elia, the
extreme paradoxes of the author of Table-Talk, the Confessions of the
Opium-Eater, the copious tales of traditional literature, all in one
volume?’ What this comment shows is that he was highly conscious of
the extent to which his own popularity, like that of Lamb and De
Quincey and James Hogg ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’, was heavily based
upon his cultivation of a literary persona.23As Lamb himself pointed out,
in an unpublished review of Hazlitt’s Table-Talk: ‘The Writer almost
everywhere adopts the style of a discontented man. This assumption of
a Character . . . is that which gives force and life to his writing.’24
Re-interpreting the oppositional manner of Hazlitt’s reflective essays
in the light of the fashion for literary ‘characters’ which had been gener-
ated by the London Magazine, we can thus begin to see how it may have
been part of a deliberate attempt to differentiate himself from the self-
conscious gentility and refinement of De Quincey’s Opium Eater, and
the whimsical antiquarianism of Lamb’s Elia by deliberately dramatising
the paradoxical and misanthropic tendencies of his own personality.
And indeed it is worth noting, in this context, that when the contribu-
tors to Blackwood’s Magazine depicted Hazlitt as an ill-educated and spite-
ful Cockney vagabond, they were merely offering a malicious caricature
of several traits that he himself had actually cultivated in his writings.25
For in his opposition to aristocratic élitism and his scorn of literary pres-
tige, Hazlitt had made a certain churlishness part of his literary appeal,
turning the appearance of not playing the game into a new way of
playing the game.
In ‘On the Aristocracy of Letters’, one of the essays collected in Table-
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
Talk (), Hazlitt depicted the freelance journalists of London as a
body of urban beggars, a kind of revolutionary canaille. And during the
course of this essay he identified closely with this ‘corporation of
Mendicity’, dramatising his exclusion from the salons of literary power
(, ). He celebrated an ideal realm of literary leisure and autonomy
‘where want and sorrow never come’, while drawing attention to the
‘harassing, precarious’ circumstances in which he himself was writing.
When writing ‘On the Periodical Press’ for the eminently respectable
Edinburgh Review, he had embraced the new literary culture in a highly
public manner. ‘We are optimists in literature’, he had written breezily,
‘we must no longer be churls of knowledge, ascetics in pretension. We
must yield to the spirit of change (whether for the better of the worse)
and to beguile the time look like the time’ (, ). But in the Table-
Talks he wrote for the London and New Monthly magazines from 
onwards, he was to cultivate a character of himself as a disgruntled mis-
anthrope, a ‘sour Jacobin’ disappointed in his artistic ambitions and
dissatisfied with the vexations of essay-writing.26
As Jon Klancher has shown in his important work on English reading
audiences, with the rapid expansion of the reading public in the
Romantic period, literary producers could no longer be certain of the
cultural constituency their work was addressing. The public sphere of
rational critical debate which developed during the eighteenth century
had become increasingly splintered and fragmented along professional
and class lines by the beginning of the nineteenth, so that it was no
longer possible to believe in the unity and integrity of the national
culture. Increasingly, therefore, editors and journalists took it upon
themselves to create the taste by which they were to be judged. In the
case of the bourgeois reviews of the period this led to a strategic attempt
to forge an identifiably middle-class consciousness through the develop-
ment of new forms of reading and writing. As Klancher has demon-
strated, the leading reviewers and contributors of the polite papers can
be seen to have developed a characteristic mode of writing which served
to dramatise the process by which the mind abstracted knowledge from
the world of matter. By this means middle-class consciousness was con-
stituted not so much in terms of a coherent body of knowledge or beliefs
but as a characteristic cultural practice.27
Within this context, Hazlitt can be seen to emerge as a fundamentally
middle-class writer addressing himself to a middle-class audience, with
his essays regularly displaying many of the elements which Klancher
has shown to be typical of contemporary bourgeois style. His style is
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
self-consciously analytical, it flaunts its own ability to abstract general
patterns and principles from the raw material of everday experience,
moreover it is full of historical and cultural references which would only
have been intelligible to the more educated readers of his time. In that
sense he can be seen to have selected his own readership. But what is
seldom noticed is that there is also a self-consciously ‘low’ current in
Hazlitt’s prose. His writing shows him to have been deeply enamoured
of metaphysical speculations and literary allusions, but it also displays a
fondness for common puns and proverbs, slang phrases and street-talk.
In fact, in many of his reflective essays, he was to balance his belletris-
tic effects with vulgar sallies. So much so, indeed, that in reading Hazlitt
one often has the sense that he imagined his reading public as a het-
erogenous assortment of individuals rather than a particular class or
constituency, and that this plurality can be seen to be mirrored in his
prose, which is itself constructed out of an array of different voices,
ranging from the polite to the plebian. Significantly enough, then, it
emerges that, at precisely the same time as Coleridge was suggesting the
need for an intellectual élite or clerisy to move between the different
classes of society and provide them with some form of common
culture,28 Hazlitt was trying to keep alive the notion of a truly pluralis-
tic realm of public debate by simulating it in his prose. Interpreted in
this light, Hazlitt’s proletarianisation of himself in his reflective essays
can be seen to offer itself as a token form of resistance to the Malthusian
separation of mind from matter which was being effected by the middle-
class reviews.
But above and beyond his playful use of the vernacular, Hazlitt did
also use other means to undermine and expose the ‘Aristocracy of
Letters’. Not the least of these was that in many of his specifically
reflective, autobiographical essays, he regularly presented himself as an
outsider, a parasite of the system, cultivating an image of himself as a
solitary abandoned by the world, as if to highlight the contrast between
himself and aristocratic exiles like Byron.29 For example, in the essay
‘On Living to One’s Self ’, which was written in , he set up an
opposition between the vanity of the everyday world and what he called
‘living to one’s self ’:
What I mean by living to one’s self is living in the world, as in it, not of it: it is
as if no one knew there was such a person, and you wished no one to know it:
it is to be a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things, not an object of atten-
tion or curiosity in it; to take a thoughtful, anxious interest in what is passing in
the world, but not to feel the slightest inclination to make or meddle with it . . .
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart, looks at the busy world
through the loop-holes of retreat, and does not want to mingle with the fray.
(, )
The topos is a familiar one; such inclinations had been a regular
feature of the latter part of Rousseau’s Confessions; and they also formed
the basis of the dream of the ring of Gyges in the Sixth Promenade of
the Rêveries. On the latter occasion, especially, Rousseau had not been
able to keep his promise to live to himself; and before long he had begun
to fantasise ways of using his invisibility to exert a moral influence upon
those around him, through little acts of ‘clemency’ or ‘severe justice’.30
And as in the Rêveries so too in Rousseauvian autobiography as a whole,
it was always but a short step back from the position of the solitary to
that of the legislator. In ‘On Living to One’s Self ’, by contrast, Hazlitt
showed little of this ‘lawgiving’ impulse. But he did rehearse the stark
opposition, which had been such a feature of Rousseau’s second Discours,
between the self-containment of man in his solitary state, and his tragic
alienation in the appetitive, competitive and argumentative realm of
civil society. And significantly, in elaborating this opposition, he was to
make a point of situating Rousseau on the side of self-forgetfulness
rather than egotistical ambition:
If ever there was a man who did not derive more pain than pleasure from his
vanity, that man, says Rousseau, was no other than a fool.
Gradually, as Hazlitt’s argument on professional vanity developed, the
essay grew into another extended attack on ‘public opinion’, which was
represented as the most abject form of collective self-alienation and the
absolute antipodes of solitary independence: ‘There is not a more mean,
stupid, dastardly, pitiful, selfish, spiteful, envious, ungrateful animal than
the Public. It is the greatest of cowards, for it is afraid of itself. From its
unwieldy, overgrown dimensions, it dreads the least opposition to it, and
shakes like isinglass at the touch of a finger. It starts at its own shadow,
like the man in the Hartz mountains, and trembles at the mention of its
own name’. And as he grew more vociferous in his pursuit of this theme,
he was forced to abandon the tone of reverie which had characterised
his opening remarks, as if in order to demonstrate how impossible it was
for those who made their living in the literary marketplace to really ‘live
to themselves’ by showing how they were forever being dragged back,
against their will, into the atmosphere of dust and heat which character-
ised contemporary Grub Street. He offered himself as an exemplary
failure in this respect, contrasting himself with those writers in whom the
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
rhetoric of splendid isolation was nothing but a literary cover, disguising
an underlying abjection. And he cited the celebrated stanzas beginning
‘I have not loved the world nor the world me’ from canto  of Childe
Harolde as an example of this, arguing that it was only the assumed
superiority of Byron’s poetic persona which gave the appearance of
dignity and distinterestedness to sentiments that were actually full of
bitterness and wounded pride:
Sweet verse embalms the spirit of sour misanthropy: but woe betide the ignoble
prose writer who should thus dare to compare notes with the world, or tax it
roundly with imposture. (, )

Here Hazlitt launches another attack upon the ‘Coriolanus’ principle


in Byron’s verse. Firstly, he does this by demystifying his own role as a
mover and shaker of critical opinion, openly confessing the extent to
which he, like every other writer of the modern day, frequently finds
himself at the mercy of ‘public’ taste. But at the same time he also hints
that, whereas in his own writing this subjection is freely acknowledged,
in Byron’s poetry it is precisely what is being repressed. Indeed he even
goes so far as to suggest a reading of the stanzas from Childe Harolde in
which the grand disdain of the noble hero is to be interpreted as nothing
more than a sublimated version of the ‘ignoble’ misanthropy of the
fraught professional writer. Taken as a whole, then, ‘On Living to One’s
Self ’ begins by celebrating the state of reverie as a genuine renunciation
of worldy ambition, and ends up by exposing it as just another means of
attempting to master the public, an affectation of privacy and detach-
ment which has as its deepest desire the approbation of the world. And
as we have seen, Hazlitt does not absolve himself from this charge of
hypocrisy, indeed he acknowledges the extent to which his own rhetoric
of splendid isolation is also, to some degree, an unsustainable literary
pose. In this way his reflective essays can be seen to rehearse many of the
themes and tropes of the Romantic poetry of the period, most especially
that of Byron and Wordsworth, and yet at the same time to offer struc-
tures which serve to interrogate many of its cultural and moral claims,
placing its play of consciousness very much within the realm of the liter-
ary marketplace, and materialising its fictions of independence.
In arguing for the transcendence of the the figurative faculty in the
Biographia Literaria and the Poems of  Coleridge and Wordsworth had
sought to supply it with the kind of critical authority that was deemed
to have passed out of the realm of polemical debate with the rise of a
new and highly contentious literary culture. But by self-consciously
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
reflecting upon the extent to which the workings of his own imagination
were always to some degree defined and determined by his professional
circumstances, Hazlitt showed that one could not take the disinterested-
ness of ‘the Imagination’ entirely for granted, thereby encouraging a
materialist analysis of its ideological function in the Laker’s work.31 In
‘On Going a Journey’ he was to describe how he preferred to travel alone
when he was in the country because a friend could always be relied upon
to disturb the abstraction of the scene before him by coming ungra-
ciously between him and his ‘imaginary character’. But in many ways he
was a just such a fellow-traveller to the Romantic poets of his genera-
tion, for if his reflective essays rehearsed many of the central preoccupa-
tions of the poetry of the period, indulging what we have now come to
think of as the central elements of ‘Romantic’ experience, they also
served to demythologise and deconstruct it, to lay it open for critical
inspection.32 And even when he had no Lake poet to hand, he was happy
to play Paine to his own Burke, translating philosophical speculations
into street slang, subjecting romantic effusions to the examination of
common sense, cultivating a notion of ‘the poetry of life’ as a means of
attacking the philosophical materialism of the Benthamites, while
simultaneously deploring his own exclusion from ‘the aristocracy of
letters’. Charles Lamb, a sympathetic reviewer of Table-Talk, attempted
to characterise the writer’s discontinuous style: ‘he all along acts as his
own interpreter, and is continually translating his thoughts out of their
original metaphysical obscurity into the language of the senses’. And in
much of his reflective writing, Hazlitt did indeed oscillate across a kind
of Malthusian divide, unable to endorse Wordsworth and Coleridge’s
poetic fictions of freedom, but also unwilling to make common cause
with Bentham’s lowly creatures of necessity. In this way he can be seen
to have questioned the material basis of what Jerome McGann has
called ‘the Romantic ideology’ even if he was not finally willing to
condemn it as a species of false consciousness.
Fundamentally, Hazlitt’s mistrust of the Romantic imagination was a
product of his ambivalent attitude to the politics of egotism. On the one
hand, as we have seen, he often saw egotism as a potentially Jacobin
quality, a democratic universalisation of the self. On the other hand he
sometimes considered it to be an authoritarian reflex which curiously
mirrored the despotism of the feudal order. This conflicting response
expressed itself most clearly in his remarks on Wordsworth’s poetry.
Often Hazlitt wrote appreciatively of the democratic nature of the
work of his great contemporary. ‘His Muse . . . is a levelling one,’ he
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
commented in The Spirit of the Age () ‘it proceeds on a principle of
equality, and strives to reduce all things to the same standard’. At other
times, however, he regarded it in a less positive light. Discussing the
political apostasy of the Lake poets in his Political Essays of , he saw
the ‘levelling’ tendency of Wordsworth’s poetry as the product of a
sublime will to power:
The spirit of Jacobinism is essentially at variance with the spirit of poetry: it has
‘no figures nor no fantasies,’ which the prejudices of superstition or the world
draw in the brains of men: ‘no trivial fond records’: it levels all distinctions of
art and nature: it has no pride, pomp, or circumstance, belonging to it; it con-
verts the whole principle of admiration in the poet (which is the essence of
poetry) into admiration of himself. The spirit of Jacobinism is rank egotism. We
know an instance. It is of a person who founded a school of poetry on sheer
humanity, on idiot boys and mad mothers, and on Simon Lee, the old hunts-
man. The secret of the Jacobin poetry and anti-jacobin politics of this writer is
the same. His lyrical poetry was a cant of humanity about the commonest
people to level the great with the small; and his political poetry is a cant of
loyalty to level Bonaparte with kings and hereditary imbecility. (, )

‘The spirit of poetry’, it seems, is a chameleon spirit. It celebrates the


variegated life of nature, and indulges every custom and tradition. In
that sense it is an implicitly aristocratic principle, a remnant of Edmund
Burke’s ‘age of chivalry’. ‘The spirit of Jacobinism’, on the other hand,
is brutally egalitarian, it flattens everything under its churlish foot. In
Hazlitt’s opinion, Wordsworth’s Jacobin muse stands in an antithetical
relation to the true spirit of poetry. It offers itself as a celebration of
common humanity, but on closer inspection it proves merely to be an
exploration of the poet’s own humanitarianism. And whereas in
Rousseau’s Confessions ‘mind’ had fuelled a political assault upon the
injustices of contemporary society, in Wordsworth it has subsumed poli-
tics into itself. In the very extremity of his opposition to the Coriolanus
principle, Wordsworth has turned into a kind of Coriolanus. Once the
battering ram of feudal privilege, Jacobin egotism has become a fortress
of intellectual vanity.
Hazlitt was interested in Wordsworth’s trajectory precisely because it
seemed to describe a general historical shift in the history of Jacobinism.
After the revolutionary decade, it seemed, Jacobinism had begun to
transform itself from a body of political opinions into a habit of mind.
No longer committed to liberty and equality, it had become an unprin-
cipled love of power. In part this insight was a response to the rise of
Napoleon, which was commonly considered as the final culmination of
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
the Jacobin tradition, for Hazlitt was aware of the extent to which his
hero had betrayed the revolutionary ideal, although he was too much of
a Bonapartist to criticise the Corsican directly. In the passage quoted
above, for example, Wordsworth has become as a kind of poetic ‘cover’
for the French Emperor. He is depicted as a master spirit whose levelling
has been more imperial than republican, to such an extent that finally
his exploits cannot help but recall those of the great general. But the
comparison is never quite made. In spite of this, however, the final ten-
dency of Hazlitt’s critique was clear enough, that whereas during the
first formulation of the Jacobin ideal selfishness had been pushed to the
point of benevolence and intense personal feeling had formed the basis
of a universal sympathy, in the aftermath of the failure of the Revolution
the self had been mobilised into an exclusive and tyrannical force: so
that egotism had become the paradoxical expression of a lost civic ideal.


That Hazlitt knew himself to be implicated in this process, as both the
last practitioner of Jacobin ‘egotism’ and the historian of its final
decline, can be clearly inferred from a brief analysis of his Liber Amoris,
or the New Pygmalion of , which is, in fact, a good place to conclude
this study, not only because it is the closest Hazlitt came to writing a full-
blown autobiography, but also because in many ways it can be seen to
bring the English tradition of Rousseauvian ‘confession’ to a close. In
this work, Hazlitt told the story of his disastrous infatuation with his
landlord’s daughter Sarah Walker in . The book opens with a series
of domestic dialogues, tea-table tête-à-têtes in which a middle-aged,
middle-class man of letters called ‘H’ tries to express his ardent love for
a shy, enigmatic young girl called ‘S’, while she responds by resolutely
resisting his advances. As ‘H’ himself puts it: ‘As Rousseau said of
Madame Houptot, (forgive the allusion) my heart has found a tongue in
speaking to her, and I have talked to her the divine language of love. Yet
she says she is insensible to it.’33 And throughout this opening section the
overriding impression is of the powerlessness of ‘S’ in the face of ‘H’’s
crazy crystallisations, of the extent to which he is both constructing and
constraining her through the unremitting force of his love. In its first
part, then, Liber Amoris reads like a straightforward satire on the
Romantic Imagination, on its egotistical refusal to respect the otherness
of others, its impulse to appropriate things to itself. In Parts Two and
Three, however, the dialogue form is dropped and we are presented
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
instead with a series of letters from ‘H’ to several of his male friends, in
which he describes himself sinking deeper and deeper into the pit of
unrequited misery: ‘The hearing of your happiness had, I own, made
me thoughtful’, he writes to ‘P_’, in the last letter of Part Two, ‘It is just
what I proposed to her to do – to have crossed the Alps with me, to have
visited Vevai and the rocks of Meillerie, and to have repeated to her on
the spot the story of Julia and Saint Preux, and to have shown her all
that my heart had stored up for her – but on my forehead alone is written
– Rejected!’ And with this change of form, there comes a corresponding
change of focus, as the emphasis changes from the dangers of ‘H’’s
romanticism to the failure of ‘S’ to live up to his dream of Rousseauvian
intimacy. So that finally, having gathered some supposedly damning
‘proof ’ of her deeply duplicitous nature, the book ends with ‘H’
renouncing ‘S’ forever, while remaining residually faithful to the ideal
that she formerly represented: ‘Such is the creature on whom I had
thrown away my heart and soul – one who was incapable of feeling the
commonest emotions of human nature, as they regarded herself or
anyone else.’
Like Rousseau’s Confessions, Liber Amoris is essentially concerned with
the failure of transparency. It begins by throwing up the possibility of a
transparent understanding between ‘H’ and ‘S’, but then goes on to
present a series of incidents in which ‘H’’s attempts to pierce ‘S’’s mad-
dening opacity are repeatedly disappointed. In the face of this frustra-
tion, ‘H’ increasingly falls prey to the temptations of suspicion and
paranoia, so that, by the end of the narrative, the only way that he can
make sense of ‘S’’s behaviour, is by imagining her as the absolute
epitome of studied and systematic ill-will. But what is intriguing about
Liber Amoris is that it, initially at least, Hazlitt seems aware of the extent
to which ‘H’ himself represents the real obstacle to true transparency,
as the opening dialogues expose his thoroughly perverse commitment to
reading ‘S’’s character and comments in accordance with his own
narrow will. In the end, however, this emphasis is not sustained: the
book concludes on a much more Rousseauvian note, with the final
section setting up a stark contrast between ‘H’’s ‘utopian’ desire and ‘S’’s
malevolent duplicity. And such is the nature of this shift that, just as with
so many of his reflective essays, Hazlitt’s ‘book of love’ finally registers
itself as a symptom as well as a study of the disease it sets out to
explore.34
Like the Confessions, then, Liber Amoris begins as confession and ends
as self-justification. The difference is that, unlike Rousseau, Hazlitt does
‘Sour Jacobinism’: William Hazlitt and the resistance to reform 
not hold out any hope, that the ‘confession’ of private suffering might
transform itself, after having entered the public realm, into a rallying
point for social and political reform. Rather he makes a point of
emphasising that, in his own mind at least, the last remnants of public
hope have been sunk in this private wreck. The metaphor for ‘H’’s
public hopes in Liber Amoris is the little statue of Bonaparte, which he
gives to ‘S’ in the middle of the narrative. For her the image is only
important insofar as it reminds her of a former beau. In his eyes,
however, it is charged with huge significance. For when he gives her the
little bust, the strong suggestion is that the last remnant of his political
idealism is being entrusted to her. Not only entrusted to her, but also
invested in her, for as the narrative proceeds, and ‘H’ begins to use the
statue as a bargaining point with ‘S’, begging her to acquiesce in his
wishes ‘for the little image’s sake’, we are made aware of the extent to
which, for him at least, ‘Bonaparte’ has put a radical seal upon their
love, identifying it as a belated private fulfilment of the democratic prin-
ciples of the French Revolution, and thus a consolation in miniature for
the failure of its public ideal. But as time goes on, and ‘S’ continues to
cool towards him, ‘H’ begins to change his attitude towards this particu-
lar political perwinkle. So that finally, during one of the most violent of
their disputes, he decides to dash it to the floor before ‘S’’s very eyes,
having come to regard it simply ‘as one of the instruments of her
mockery’. And such is the uncertainty of tone during this climactic
occasion, that the reader comes away from it with a complex sense that
it is at one and the same time a moment of deep personal tragedy, a
kind of private Waterloo, and a scene of high farce, in which the
conjunction of high politics and domestic dispute has become ridicu-
lous in the extreme.
In this way Liber Amoris plays an intriguing double game. To a
significant degree, it repeats many of the central impulses of Rousseau’s
Confessions, having as its central narrator a character who is shamelessly
open about his own weaknesses, and unapologetically personal in his
associations, who experiences anything less than total transparency in
others as a form of malevolent conspiracy, and who encourages us to
think of private relationships in political terms, both as relationships of
power, and as sites of utopian possibility. Indeed its entire conception
of romantic experience is in identifiably Jacobin terms, as a realm of
human endeavour in which circumstances mean nothing and everything
is explicable in terms of the will. But the book does also carry within it
the elements of an auto-critique, most notably in the ironic stance it
 Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism
takes towards ‘H’’s romantic solipsism, and in its hovering awareness of
the stupidity of collapsing the political into the personal. Simultaneously,
then, it functions as a powerful example of Jacobin confession, and as a
detailed analysis of all the tradition’s worst tendencies; as a last desper-
ate expression of radical ‘enthusiasm’ and as a damning piece of ‘self-
satire’.
Notes

       
 Frankenstein, the  text, ed. by J. Paul Hunter (New York and London:
Norton, ), p. . Further references are given after quotations in the
text.
 There are a number of comparisons between Rousseau and Prometheus in
the Romantic writing of the period. For example, in the novel The Wrongs of
Woman which Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, left uncompleted at her
death, Rousseau is described by the heroine Maria as ‘the true Prometheus
of Sentiment’; Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, in Complete Works,  vols., ed.
by Janet Todd and Marilyn Butler (London: William Pickering, ), , .
 The account that the Comte de Mirabeau gives of this society in his ‘Essay
on the Sect of the Illuminati’ is highly reminiscent of Shelley’s description
of the creation of the monster in Frankenstein: ‘Formed in the recesses of
impenetrable darkness, this society constitutes a new race of beings . . .
Their oaths would realise the sanguinary fable of Atreus, and would cover
the whole face of the earth with a nation of assassins.’ This is cited in John
Adolphus’s Biographical Memoirs of the French Revolution,  vols. (London: ),
, , which was read by both Percy and Mary Shelley between  and
.
 See Lee Sterrenburg, ‘Mary Shelley’s Monster: Politics and Psyche in
Frankenstein’, The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. by George Levine and U. C.
Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: University of California Press, ), pp. –;
see also Gary Kelly, English Fiction of the Romantic Period, – (London:
Longman, ), p. .
 See Mary Shelley, Journals, ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-
Kilvert (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, ), p. , . Percy
Bysshe Shelley, Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. by F. L. Jones (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, ), pp. –, and N. I. White, Shelley,  vols. (London:
Secker and Warburg, ), appendix : reading lists.
 It was, of course, during the same ‘Swiss’ summer that the Shelleys’
companion Lord Byron composed the third canto of Childe Harolde’s
Pilgrimage, which contains an account of Rousseau as a ‘self-torturing
sophist’ who was ‘enamoured’ of an ‘ideal beauty’ that ‘breathed itself to


 Notes to pages –
life’ in La Nouvelle Heloïse, his celebrated sentimental novel of . Having
praised Rousseau’s passionate style, Byron goes on to suggest that ‘he was
frenzied by disease or woe, / To that worst pitch of all, which wears a rea-
soning show’: ‘For then he was inspired, and from him came, / As from the
Pythian’s mystic cave of yore, / Those oracles which set the world in
flame, / Nor ceased to burn till kingdoms were no more.’ George Gordon,
Lord Byron, Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, canto , stanza , in Poetical
Works, ed. by Frederick Page, new edition revised by John Jump (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, ).
 See Shelley’s letters to T. L. Peacock,  July , Letters, pp. –.
 Germaine de Staël, De la littérature, ed. Gérard Gengembre and Jean
Goldzink (Paris: Garnier Flammarion, ), discours préliminaire.
 See, for example, David Simpson’s Romanticism, Nationalism and the Revolt
against Theory (Chicago: Chicago University Press, ), pp. ff. Simpson’s
impressive account of the Romantic revolt against French revolutionary
theory does nevertheless acknowledge the existence of an anti-theoretical
and anti-progressive current at the heart of French Jacobinism. It is this
tradition and its influence that I shall be attempting to trace.
 ‘Rousseau’s Critique of Liberal Constitutionalism’, The Legacy of Rousseau,
ed. by Clifford Orwin and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: Chicago University
Press, ), p. .
 See Patrice Higonnet, Class, Ideology and the Rights of Nobles during the French
Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ).
 On Frankenstein’s fear of other subjectivities see Francis Ferguson’s chapter
on ‘The Gothicism of the Gothic Novel’, in Solitude and the Sublime (London:
Routledge, ).
 See Chris Baldick, ‘The Monster Speaks’, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth,
Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
).
 ‘Mary Shelley’s Monster’, The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. –. See
above.
 Of which the most enduring and impressive examples are Marjorie
Levinson, Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, ), Alan Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, ), Jerome J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical
Investigation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, ) and David Simpson,
Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination: The Poetry of Displacement (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, ).
 The Romantic Ideology, p. .
 Mary Shelley’s Journal, ed. F. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
), p. .
 One of the most virtuosic renderings of this argument is contained in Alan
Liu’s Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
).
 Hannah More, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, first pub-
lished  (New York: Garland, ), p. .
Notes to pages – 
 Chris Jones, Radical Sensibility: Literature and Ideas in the s (London:
Routledge, ), p. . Further references are given after quotations in the
text.
 Edward Duffy, Rousseau in England (Berkeley: University of California, ),
chapters two and three.
 William Wordsworth, ‘The Convention of Cintra’, Selected Prose, ed. by John
O. Hayden (Harmondsworth: Penguin, ), p. . See also the linking of
Turgot, Robespierre and Bonaparte in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The
Friend, first published –, , ed. by Barbara Rooke and Kathleen
Coburn, Collected Works (Princeton: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ), no.  (
October ) and no.  ( October ).
 Seamus Deane, The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England –
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, ).
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter
Jackson Bate, Collected Works (London and Princeton: Routledge and
Princeton University Press, ), p. .
 Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published , ed. by Conor Cruise
O’Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, ), p. .
 Reflections, p. .

       :                 



 The celebrated Spartan Legislator, whose life and works were described by
Plutarch in one of his Lives and in his Spartan Institutions.
 New Letters of Robert Southey, ed. by Kenneth Curry (New York: Columbia
University Press, ), , .
 For a discussion of the drawing up of this Constitution see J. M. Thompson,
Napoleon Bonaparte,  edn (Oxford: Blackwell, ), pp. –.
 The Friend No.  ( October ), first published –, ; ed. by
Barbara Rooke and Kathleen Coburn, Collected Works of Samuel Taylor
Coleridge (Princeton: Routledge and Kegan Paul, ), , –. For a dis-
cussion of Coleridge’s analysis of the political theory of the French
Revolution see Seamus Deane, ‘Coleridge and Rousseau’, in The French
Revolution and Enlightenment in England – (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, ).
 New Letters of Robert Southey, , .
 See, for example Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, ).
 For a recent account of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s relation to civic
humanism and radical dissent see Nigel Leask’s The Politics of Imagination in
Coleridge’s Critical Thought (London: Macmillan, ).
 ‘The View from England’, Representations of Revolution – (New
Haven and London: Yale, ).
 David Denby and Lynn Hunt have both succeeded in showing the impor-
tance of genres such as gothic and romance to French revolutionary
 Notes to pages –
representation; See David J. Denby, Sentimental Narrative and the Social Order in
France – (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ) and Lynn
Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of
California Press, ).
 William Wordsworth, The Thirteen-Book Prelude, , –, ed. by Mark L.
Reed, the Cornell Wordsworth,  vols. (Ithaca and London: Cornell
University Press) , . Unless otherwise stated, references to The Prelude
throughout this thesis are to this edition.
 In this way the very slipperiness of the word ‘Jacobin’ during the period can
be seen as a telling emblem of the fratricidal tension that lurked at the heart
of revolutionary republicanism. Initially, at least, to be a Jacobin was to be
a member of the Jacobin club. In this sense many of the Girondins and
Montagnards were all Jacobins at one time or another, Brissot as well as
Robespierre, Condorcet as well as Saint-Just. However, as their influence
with the clubs and sections waned from  onwards, the Girondin leaders
began to use the term ‘Jacobin’ to refer specifically to the Robespierrist
faction and it is this definition that has been taken up by many historians.
At the time of the Revolution itself, the counter-revolutionary press in both
France and England refused to allow for any distinction between Jacobins
and Girondins. In their opinion all of the French revolutionaries were
‘Jacobins’ to a greater or lesser extent. In England even radicals and repub-
licans of the period are rather loose in their use of the term. Often one can
only tell the meaning of the word by looking at its context. Suffice it to say,
therefore, that while the word ‘Jacobinism’ always included the so-called
‘reign of Robespierre’ (–) within its frame of reference, sometimes it
also referred to the period of the Girondin ascendency (–) and some-
times simply to the Revolutionary phenomenon as a whole.
 An account of the liberal theory of the physiocrats is given in Jürgen
Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a
Category of Bourgeois Society, first published , trans. by Thomas Burger
and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: Polity Press, ), pp. –.
 Emmanuel Sièyes, Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? first published , ed. by Jean
Denis Bredin (Paris: Flammarion, ), p. . Further references are given
after quotations in the text. Unless otherwise stated, all translations are my
own.
 Keith Baker, ‘Sieyès’, in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, ed.
François Furet and Mona Ozouf, trans. Arthus Goldhammer (Harvard:
Belknap Press, ).
 Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts, in Oeuvres Complètes, ed. by Bernard Gagnebin
and Marcel Raymond,  vols. (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,
–), , –. Hereafter cited as OC.
 Du Contrat Social, OC , –.
 OC , .
 OC , .
 OC , .
 OC , .
Notes to pages – 
 The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of
Bourgeois Society, p. –.
 See Part  of J. G. A Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, ).
 The phrase is taken from the title of an essay by Edward Said in The World,
the Text and the Critic (London: Vintage, ).
 See especially section  of the Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles, first pub-
lished , ed. by Michel Launay (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, ).
 On the relation between theory and practice in the political theory of the
French Revolution see Norman Hampson, Will and Circumstance: Montesquieu,
Rousseau and the French Revolution (London: Duckworth, ), pp. –.
 ‘Rousseau’s Critique of Liberal Constitutionalism’, The Legacy of Rousseau,
ed. by Clifford Orwin and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: Chicago University
Press, ), p. .
 See Baker, ‘Representation Redefined,’ in Inventing the Revolution
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ), pp. –.
 See William Sewell, A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: The Abbé Sieyès and ‘What
Is The Third Estate?’ (Durham and London: Duke University Press, ), pp.
–.
 ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ Keith Michael Baker,
The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Chicago, Chicago University Press:
), p.